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Friday's Mini-Report, 11.7.14

11/07/14 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Maybe now would be a good time for congressional debate: "President Obama has authorized the deployment of up to 1,500 additional troops to help train, advise and assist Iraqi government and Kurdish peshmerga forces in their fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon announced Friday. Deploying all 1,500 troops would nearly double the total U.S. military presence in Iraq."
 
* Quite a disclosure: "More than 600 American service members since 2003 have reported to military medical staff members that they believe they were exposed to chemical warfare agents in Iraq, but the Pentagon failed to recognize the scope of the reported cases or offer adequate tracking and treatment to those who may have been injured, defense officials say."
 
* Missouri: "A federal judge on Friday declared Missouri's ban on same-sex couples' marriages unconstitutional, echoing a state court's conclusion earlier this week."
 
* Hard not to be pessimistic: "President Obama is holding a lunch meeting with the newly empowered Republican leadership of Congress as the two sides, faced with the prospect of even worse partisan gridlock in the capital, seek areas of possible compromise."
 
* More on this on tonight's show: "Christopher B. Epps, a former state corrections commissioner in Mississippi, was arraigned in federal court on Thursday on charges of participating in a corruption scheme in which he received nearly a million dollars from a contractor who paid off Mr. Epps's home mortgage and helped him buy a beach condominium."
 
* Lame-duck session: "Before ceding full control of Congress to the GOP in January, Senate Democrats are planning to rush a host of critical measures to President Obama's desk, including bills to revive dozens of expired tax breaks and avoid a government shutdown for another year."
 
* "My committee is a desert island if not for a press that will look at something fairly, scrutinize it, but if they see a there, there, report it," House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) said. "When an administration says 'no,' it's no different than when Andrew Jackson marched Indians down the Trail of Tears, to their death." I have no idea what he's even trying to say.
Navy Chaplain Lt. Gordon J. Klingenschmitt is pictured as he conducts a worship service in front of the White House, background, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2006, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Meet Colorado's 'Dr. Chaps'

11/07/14 04:20PM

By one count, there are over 7,000 Americans serving as state legislators nationwide, and with a group that big, there are going to be some strange, fringe figures that most of the American mainstream would find cringe-worthy. It's hardly worth the effort to point out every nut who somehow gets elected to help write a state's laws.
 
That said, Gordon Klingenschmitt -- a.k.a. "Dr. Chaps" -- is a very special case.
Gordon "Dr. Chaps" Klingenschmitt, a radical anti-gay Religious Right activist who brags of having once tried to rid of woman of the "foul spirit of lesbianism" through an exorcism and who openly proclaims that "American law needs to reflect God's law" and that our foreign policy must be based on the Bible, won election to the Colorado House of Representatives last night.
 
Klingenschmitt, who wrote a book about how President Obama is possessed by demons and once performed an exorcism of Obama, ran an utterly embarrassing campaign yet nonetheless managed to defeat his Democratic opponent by nearly 40 points.
It's probably worth emphasizing, in case anyone isn't sure, that this is entirely serious. Klingenschmitt really believes in exorcisms for gay people and that the president is demon-possessed. And 17,000 voters in Colorado really did choose, on purpose, to make Klingenschmitt a state lawmaker.
 
That said, one might be forgiven for thinking Right Wing Watch's profile of the newly elected legislator is some kind of joke. Klingenschmitt believes "only people who are going to heaven are entitled to equal treatment by the government." He's said "teaching kids about gay marriage is mental rape." He's argued that the Affordable Care Act "causes cancer." He's described Islamic State militants as a sign of the Biblical End Times.
 
But again, this is not a joke.
 
Perhaps my personal favorite was the time that Klingenschmitt declared, "You know what, citizens, if you don't have a gun, I'm telling you -- as a Christian chaplain -- sell your clothes and buy a gun. It's time." (Really, that's what he said. It's on video.)
People wait in line to enter the U.S. Supreme Court on the first day of January sessions in Washington, Jan. 13, 2014.

Supreme Court to decide whether to gut 'Obamacare'

11/07/14 03:00PM

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the Affordable Care Act is, in fact, constitutional. The ruling cleared the way for law to be fully implemented, and the results have been pretty extraordinary. "Obamacare" has brought coverage to millions of families; it's strengthened health security for tens of millions; it's lowered health care costs; it's improved the nation's finances; and it has quite literally saved lives.
 
And as of this afternoon, everyone who's benefited from the improved system has reason to panic.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a new challenge to the Obamacare's health-care subsidies, and its ruling could potentially undermine an integral piece of the law. 
 
The court will hear arguments for a case challenging tax cuts for insurance purchased on exchanges that the federal government set up under Obamacare, according to SCOTUSBlog. The case, King vs. Burwell, along with a similar challenge known as Halbig vs. Burwell, contend that the Affordable Care Act only creates federal subsidies for insurance purchased on exchanges set up by states themselves. If a state chooses not to set up an exchange, the federal government can step in to do so -- but the plaintiffs argue federally established exchanges cannot benefit from the subsidies.
This may sound like an obscure technical problem, but the outcome of this case could, in theory, prove catastrophic to the American health care system.
 
The right's argument is, in effect, that every American who gained subsidized coverage through healthcare.gov shouldn't have been able to do so. Why not? Because, according to the law's critics, only those who enrolled through state exchange marketplaces are eligible for subsidies under their interpretation of the law.
 
According to the Affordable Care Act's architects, that's demonstrably insane -- why would they design their own system to fail on purpose? -- but the right has clung to some ambiguous phrasing in the statute to insist millions of Americans should be stripped of their subsidies.
 
And if consumers lose the subsidies, they can't afford the insurance. And if they can't afford the insurance, they withdraw from the system. And if they withdraw from the system, there may not be enough consumers to support the overall market. The "death spiral" kicks in and American health care unravels -- if five justices say so.
U.S. President Bill Clinton shades his eyes as he waits to be introduced at an event in Newport, R.I. in 1998.

Looking at the '90s through rose-colored glasses

11/07/14 12:58PM

Former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R) was easily elected as Arkansas' new governor this week, and he made an interesting boast yesterday in an interview with Wolf Blitzer. The governor-elect emphasized that he's building a transition team, but he's also "communicating with our Democrat colleagues in saying we want to work together."
 
Hutchinson wants D.C. to do the same.
"I hope that Washington can learn from that, as well, and that there's a lot of soul searching as to what the voters are trying to say. I think that President Clinton, who had a big loss in a midterm election, he reached out across the aisle."
The detail that Hutchinson didn't mention is that after President Clinton reached out across the aisle, Republicans impeached him.
 
The other detail that Hutchinson didn't mention is that he was one of the impeachment managers, serving as a prosecutor in the U.S. Senate, demanding that senators undo the election and remove Clinton from office.
 
The former president's name also came up during a White House press conference this week, when Fox News' correspondent asked President Obama, "Why not pull a page from the Clinton playbook and admit you have to make a much more dramatic shift in course for these last two years?"
 
There are, of course, a couple of problems with the Republican push along these lines. To Hutchinson's point, Clinton may have "reached out across the aisle," but it didn't stop Republicans from trying to destroy him. For that matter, Obama has spent the last six years reaching out across the aisle, practically pleading with GOP lawmakers to work constructively with him on any issue, and to date, those efforts have been rebuffed.
 
To Ed Henry's point, it's not at all clear what kind of "dramatic shift in course" is warranted. Much of the electorate is understandably disgusted by the breakdown of federal governing, but Obama remains far more popular than Congress, and the president's policy agenda remains far more popular than Republicans'. The GOP didn't make a "dramatic shift in course" after they lost in 2006, 2008, and 2012, and I don't recall the Fox News correspondent suggesting the party make one at the time.
 
Besides, Obama already tried a dramatic shift in course after the 2010 midterms, offering the GOP an overly generous "grand bargain," only to discover Republicans wouldn't compromise, even while the GOP was threatening to crash the economy on purpose unless their demands were met.
 
But the larger phenomenon remains the same: too much of the political world continues to look at the 1990s through rose-colored glasses.
U.S. President Barack Obama campaigns for Democratic candidates in Detroit, Michigan

Leaving the Campaigner in Chief on the sidelines

11/07/14 12:12PM

It's hardly a secret that Democratic candidates were reluctant to campaign with President Obama this year. For that matter, there's no great mystery as to why: the president's support has lagged, leaving Dems to see him as a possible drag on their chances.
 
And so, for the most part, Obama stayed off the trail, waiting for invitations that never arrived. In the wake of the results, however, a debate has unfolded as to whether or not Dems made the right choice.
 
Garance Franke-Ruta raised a good point this morning, noting how interesting it is to see Democrats -- the ones who avoided campaigning with the president -- complain that "Obama voters stayed home" this year. Yesterday, it even became the subject of Republican trolling.
In their victory lap after taking over the Senate on Tuesday, Republicans are poking some fun at Democrats for their candidates' laborious efforts to distance themselves from President Barack Obama: Thanks a lot, guys!
 
National Republican Senatorial Committee executive director Rob Collins needled his opponents on Thursday, saying that Democrats had "sidelined their best messenger" by avoiding Obama.
As a rule, there's no good reason for Democrats to look to the NRSC for guidance, but maybe Collins' point shouldn't be dismissed out of hand.
 
Indeed, Obama campaigned for Gary Peters' in Michigan's U.S. Senate race, and Peters won; Obama campaigned for Dan Malloy in Connecticut's gubernatorial race, and Malloy won; so it's not as if the president was necessarily an electoral albatross.
 
Yes, the president's weak poll numbers didn't do his party any favors, but a variation on the chicken/egg problem emerges: did Democrats keep the president at arm's length because he's unpopular, or is his unpopularity partly to blame on Democrats keeping him at arm's length?
 
Obama's coalition of voters was the most impressive accomplishment of any Democratic politician in the last four decades. If Dems wanted more of those voters to participate, maybe the party might have benefited from Obama himself helping make the case?
 
Counterfactuals are obviously speculative and difficult to analyze, but one name keeps coming to mind: Terry McAuliffe.
Sam Brownback

Laffer feels vindicated by Kansas failure

11/07/14 11:28AM

Perhaps the first sign that Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) was pursuing a misguided economic policy was when he chose a high-profile advisor: Art Laffer. The far-right economist, best known for his ridiculous "Laffer Curve" that says tax cuts can pay for themselves, guided the Republican governor's agenda.
 
The "experiment" failed spectacularly: the Kansas plan fell short on every possible metric, from growth to job creation to revenue. The state's finances are in shambles, leading to Kansas' bond rating getting downgraded, and then downgraded again.
 
Voters in this ruby-red state, however, didn't care -- Kansans re-elected Brownback to a second term this week. Laffer talked to Dave Weigel about his satisfaction with the results.
"Every one of the tax-cutting governors won, and the tax-increasing governors lost. Connecticut and California, they won, but if you look at Massachusetts, Illinois, Maryland, the incumbent parties that had hiked taxes were rejected." [...]
 
"The states that cut their taxes really outperform the states that raise them," Laffer said. "People will see that."
I'm reminded of something Paul Krugman wrote this morning: "The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet midterms to men of understanding. Or as I put it on the eve of another Republican Party sweep, politics determines who has the power, not who has the truth."
A man with an umbrella walks as it rains at the U.S. Capitol in Washington

GOP leaders forget to pretend to care about the deficit

11/07/14 10:46AM

Americans got their first hint of what the new Republican Congress will focus on over the next two years yesterday: House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) sketched out their plan in a Wall Street Journal op-ed.
 
We talked in some detail yesterday about some of the more glaring problems with the new GOP vision, but Jon Chait flagged an angle I'd overlooked.
Boehner and McConnell have mentioned three proposals that have any significant fiscal effects:
 
1. "renewing our commitment to repeal ObamaCare." The Congressional Budget Office confirmed last year that repealing Obamacare would increase the budget deficit by $109 billion over a decade.
 
2. "a proposal to restore the traditional 40-hour definition of full-time employment." The CBO measured this, too. It would increase deficits by $73 billion over a decade.
 
3. Repeal the medical device tax (a proposal missing from the op-ed, but reported to top the list of Congressional priorities). This would increase the deficit by $29 billion over a decade.
Yes, it's literally the same week as the election, Republican control of Congress won't actually start until the new year, but already the top two GOP lawmakers have announced their plans to add $211 billion to the nation's budget deficit.
 
And while all of that amusing, it's not the really funny part. Rather, the true gem comes towards the end of the Boehner/McConnell piece:
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT., talks to reporters as he walks to the weekly Senate policy luncheons in the U.S. Capitol on June 4, 2013.

GOP reconsiders its hatred of the 'nuclear option,' right on cue

11/07/14 10:16AM

Last year, the Senate Republican minority abuses reached untenable levels never before seen in American history. GOP senators began blocking judicial nominees -- even nominees they supported -- as part of a truly ridiculous partisan tantrum with no precedent in the American tradition.
 
Left with no choice, Senate Democrats restored majority rule on most confirmation votes. Through the "nuclear option," the Senate would consider judicial nominees, hold a vote, and confirm the jurists who earned the support of a Senate majority.
 
Republicans, some of whom had already gone back on their promise to never filibuster a judicial nominee, were apoplectic. Democrats had "broken the Senate," the GOP said. Dems had created a "constitutional crisis," leaving the chamber no better than the lowly House. It was time for a Republican majority, the GOP said, to bring back some sanity to the way in which the institution operates.
 
And then, all of a sudden finding themselves in the majority, Senate Republicans came up with a new argument: Never mind.
 
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), for example, co-wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed yesterday, saying the new Republican majority should keep the nuclear option in place ... because Democrats are bad. Or something.
It will fall to the next Republican president to counteract President Obama's aggressive efforts to stack the federal courts in favor of his party's ideological agenda. But achieving such balance would be made all the more difficult -- if not impossible -- if Republicans choose to reinstate the previous filibuster rule now that the damage to the nation's judiciary has already been done.
 
To restore the rule now, after Mr. Obama has installed his controversial judges, would cement a partisan double standard: When Democrats control the White House and Senate, judicial nominations need only 50 votes; but when Republicans control both, judicial nominations require 60 votes, allowing Democratic minorities to block Republican nominations.
Ah, I see. When Bush/Cheney put far-right ideologues on the federal bench, Republicans are just acting responsibly. When Obama appoints more progressive jurists to the courts, he's "stacking the federal courts in favor of his party's ideological agenda." When Democrats consider judicial nominees through majority rule, it's a constitutional crisis. If Republicans keep this outrageous and abusive rule in place, it's fine.
 
[Update: As recently as two months ago, Hatch made the polar-opposite argument“We should get it back to where it was,” Hatch told Politico in September. “You can see the destruction that has happened around here."]
 
Hatch isn't the only one.
Barack Obama

Obama learned from the best: his GOP rivals

11/07/14 09:35AM

It's not entirely clear what House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) meant yesterday when he warned President Obama not to act on immigration policy. The "poison the well" comments were clear enough, I suppose -- apparently Obama risks hurting Republicans' feelings -- but it was the second half of the mixed metaphor that got me thinking.
Speaker John A. Boehner, emboldened by Tuesday's election results, warned on Thursday that President Obama risked "burning himself" if he took unilateral action to reform the United States immigration system.
 
In Mr. Boehner's first news conference since Republicans scored decisive victories in the midterm elections, Mr. Boehner said: "When you play with matches, you risk burning yourself. He's going to burn himself if he continues down this path."
It's open to some interpretation, isn't it? Maybe Boehner means this will lead to some kind of congressional rebuke?
 
My suspicion, however, is that the Speaker was referring to the prevailing political winds. Republicans positioned themselves as a virulently anti-immigration party, won big in the midterms, so Obama risks "burning himself" politically if he does the opposite of what the victorious Republicans want.
 
Indeed, there's been a fair amount of talk along these lines on the right over the last couple of days: given the scope and scale of the GOP successes, the president can't justify ignoring the election results.
 
But I'm reminded of an anti-drug-abuse commercial from my youth. The dad confronts his son, demanding to know where he learned to do drugs. "From you, all right?" the son says. "I learned it by watching you."
 
The president could very easily offer Boehner & Co. the same response when they demand to know how he could dare stick to his policy agenda in the wake of an electoral rebuke.

Job totals steady in October, unemployment drops once again

11/07/14 08:46AM

It wasn't that long ago when we desperately hoped the economy would be strong enough to create 200,000 jobs a month. Now, for the first time in 14 years, it's happened nine months in a row.
 
The new report from Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the U.S. economy added 214,000 jobs in October. The overall unemployment rate also dropped a little more to 5.8% -- the lowest since July 2008, which was over six years ago.
 
Once again, public-sector layoffs did not drag down the overall employment figures. Though jobs reports over the last few years have shown monthly government job losses, in October, the private sector added 209,000 while the public sector added 5,000. The latter may not sound like much, but after several years in which that total was negative, it's at least somewhat heartening.
 
As for the revisions, all of the news was positive: August's totals were revised up from 180,000 to 203,000, while September's figures were revised up, from 248,000 to 256,000. Combined, that's an additional 31,000 jobs.
 
For the right, which is still under the illusion that President Obama's tax breaks and health care law are destroying the economy, this is yet another jobs report that will be very difficult to explain.
 
All told, over the last 12 months, the U.S. economy has added over 2.64 million jobs overall and 2.58 million in the private sector. What's more, October was the 56th consecutive month in which we've seen private-sector job growth -- the longest on record.
A wedding cake for same-sex couples at a celebration on July 1, 2013.

Marriage equality appears headed for high court showdown

11/07/14 08:00AM

About a month ago, the U.S. Supreme Court surprised many with an unexpected announcement: the justices would not hear any of the marriage-equality cases pending in the courts. Three appellate courts -- the 4th, 7th, and 10th Circuits -- had already cleared the way for same-sex marriages in much of the country, and the high court decided not to intervene. Soon after, the 9th Circuit reached the same conclusion.
 
As we discussed at the time, there was growing talk that unanimity among the lower courts would mean the Supreme Court might never weigh in at all -- it'd be a moot point if every state were covered, through the will of voters, elected policymakers, appellate court rulings, or some combination therein.
 
Late yesterday, however, the landscape changed.
The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld same-sex marriage bans Thursday in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee, becoming the first federal appeals court in the nation to rule against marriage equality since the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) was struck down last year.
 
The break with tradition is important because it provides a "circuit split" that the Supreme Court will probably have to resolve. Last month, the justices declined to hear marriage equality cases out of five states -- Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin -- most likely because every federal appeals court at the time had found same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional.
The entirety of the 2-1 ruling is available online here (pfd). Judge Jeffrey Sutton, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote for the majority, arguing that if same-sex couples wish to legally marry, they should avoid justice through the courts and simply persuade their opponents to expand civil rights.
 
Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey, a Clinton appointee, wrote a rather scathing dissent.
 
In the short term, this is obviously a setback for proponents of civil rights in the states within the 6th Circuit, but it's important to emphasize that this isn't the end of the road.

Lame-duck blitz and other headlines

11/07/14 07:48AM

Senate Democrats plan a legislative rush before power shifts to the GOP. (Washington Post)

After TN voters gave lawmakers more power to restrict abortion, here's how lawmakers plan to use it. (The Tennessean)

Exit polls: white voters turn away from Democrats. (AP)

Judge to decide Detroit's bankruptcy today. (Detroit Free Press)

Nixon Library releases previously classified audio (no, not the missing 18 minutes). (AP)

Ukraine claims a Russian tank column has crossed its border. (Reuters)

Regional politicians approve restart of nuclear plant in Japan. (NY Times)

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