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Former President Bill Clinton makes way for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton during the "Hillary Victory Fund: I'm with Her" benefit concert, March 2, 2016, in New York. (Photo by Julie Jacobson/AP)

Unexpected issue takes center stage in Democratic race

04/11/16 01:02PM

In theory, Hillary Clinton arguably has the best Democratic campaign surrogate in the country: her husband. Every presidential hopeful has well known supporters, but only the Democratic frontrunner can have a two-term former president, whom many Democrats are excited to see, appear literally anywhere in the country to sing her praises.
 
But there are exceptions. Last week in Philadelphia, former President Bill Clinton was confronted by two Black Lives Matters protesters who pressed him on, among other things, the 1994 crime bill. By any fair assessment, the exchanges between Clinton and his critics didn't go well for the former president, who expressed some regrets over the incident a day later.
 
Over the weekend, Bernie Sanders appeared at an event at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where he took advantage of the apparent opportunity.
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders criticized Bill Clinton's public argument with Black Lives Matter protesters, calling his words "unacceptable." [...]
 
"I think that the president owes the American people an apology for trying to defend the indefensible," Sanders said.
In context, "indefensible" was apparently in reference to '90s-era rhetoric about "superpredators" -- a word coined by political scientist John DiIulio to describe a coming wave of remorseless and brutal youngsters who would soon wreak havoc on American society. (They did not, in fact, exist.)
 
On the surface, having the two campaigns argue about criminal-justice policy is a welcome, substantive shift from some of the nastier and more personal criticisms voters have heard of late. That said, it's unexpected for the 2016 race for the Democratic nomination would focus so much on a 22-year-old law that both of the candidates supported.

Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.11.16

04/11/16 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
 
* With eight days remaining until the New York presidential primaries, a new Fox News poll shows Donald Trump in a dominant position with 54% support. John Kasich is second in the poll with 22%, followed by Ted Cruz with 15%.
 
* Among New York Democrats, the same poll found Hillary Clinton leading Bernie Sanders, 53% to 37%.
 
* In Pennsylvania, which hosts its presidential primaries on April 26, a new Fox News poll shows Clinton leading Sanders by 11 points, 49% to 38%.
 
* Among Pennsylvania Republicans, the same poll found Trump far ahead of his rivals with 48%, followed by Kasich's 22% and Cruz's 20%.
 
* Though Sanders is no longer questioning Clinton's qualifications for the presidency, the Vermont senator yesterday said on "Meet the Press" yesterday there's something "clearly lacking" in the former Secretary of State's judgment. For her part, Clinton is starting to focus her criticisms on Trump directly. She said during a CNN interview yesterday that she doesn't have "anything negative to say" about Sanders.
 
* Ahead of Maryland's April 26 primary, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) ended his official neutrality yesterday and threw his support to Clinton.
Florida Governor Rick Scott attends an event on March 9, 2015 in Hialeah, Fla. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty)

Rick Scott's PAC targets Florida constituent

04/11/16 11:20AM

It's inevitable that prominent figures in public life, most notably politicians, are occasionally going to be confronted by critics. There are, however, different ways to handle hecklers.
 
Last week, for example, in a north Florida coffee shop, Gov. Rick Scott (R) ran into a local woman named Cara Jennings, who had some concerns about the Republican governor's health care agenda. "You cut Medicaid so I couldn't get Obamacare. You're an a**hole," Jennings yelled. "You don't care about working people. You should be ashamed to show your face around here."
 
When Scott walked away, Jennings kept going. "You stripped women of access to public health care," the Florida woman added. "Shame on you, Rick Scott. We depend on those services. Rich people like you don't know what to do when poor people like us need health services -- you cut them."
 
MSNBC's Khorri Atkinson reported on the unexpected response from the governor's political operation: Team Scott launched an attack ad targeting the critic.
Scott's super PAC, Let's Get to Work, made the governor's statement into an attack ad calling Jennings "a terribly rude woman," a "latte liberal" and someone who "clearly has a problem."
 
The PAC defended Scott's record on job creation, which Jennings called into question. "Almost everybody [has a great job]," the ad says. "Except those who are sitting around coffee shops, demanding public assistance, surfing the internet and cursing at customers who come in."
 
The ad also said Jennings is a "former government official" who "refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance" and "calls herself an anarchist."
For the record, I know practically nothing about Cara Jennings, her career, her ideology, or her personality.
 
But in a story like this, I'm not sure it matters. Since when do political operations tied to elected officials go after regular, private citizens? Is there any precedent at all for a sitting governor's PAC launching an attack ad against a constituent?

The relevance of the South in the Democratic presidential race

04/11/16 10:41AM

On ABC's "This Week" yesterday, host George Stephanopoulos asked Bernie Sanders about his campaign strategy at this stage of the race. The Vermont senator, making an oblique reference to his message to Democratic superdelegates, presented himself as a "stronger candidate" than Hillary Clinton. It led to an interesting exchange:
STEPHANOPOULOS: She's getting more votes.
 
SANDERS: Well, she's getting more votes. A lot of that came from the South.
Just as a matter of arithmetic, there's certainly some truth to that. Clinton, at least for now, has a sizable advantage over Sanders -- both in pledged delegates and in the raw popular vote -- in part because of several big wins from Texas to Virginia. Remove her successes in the region from the equation and the race for the Democratic nomination would obviously be very different.
 
The result is a provocative rhetorical pitch from Team Sanders: Clinton may be ahead, but her advantage is built on her victories in the nation's most conservative region. By this reasoning, the argument goes, Clinton's lead comes with an asterisk of sorts -- she's up thanks to wins in states that aren't going to vote Democratic in November anyway.
 
Stepping back, though, it's worth taking a closer look to determine whether the pitch has merit.
Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert arrives at the federal courthouse, June 9, 2015. (Photo by Paul Beaty/AP)

Prosecutors add crushing details to Hastert allegations

04/11/16 10:00AM

Nearly a year later, it still seems hard to believe. As we discussed last May, a criminal indictment against former House Speaker Dennis Hastert was made public, alleging that an unnamed person approached the Illinois Republican and confronted him over misdeeds that happened "years earlier." Soon after, the Republican began paying the unnamed person through a series of cash installments.
 
According to the allegations at the time, Hastert agreed to pay $3.5 million in order to "compensate for and conceal" unspecified "misconduct." The former GOP leader was charged, not for the misdeeds, but for his attempts to cover them up, including alleged lies to the FBI.
 
Four months later, Hastert issued a guilty plea on the charges related to his financial improprieties, but as the sentencing phase gets underway, prosecutors are now adding crushing details to the case against the former Speaker.
Justice Department prosecutors said Friday that former House speaker Dennis Hastert abused four young boys when he was their wrestling coach and urged that he be ordered to serve up to six months in prison when he's sentenced later this month. [...]
 
For the first time, government lawyers said Hastert made payments to a man who was sexually abused at age 14 by Hastert when he was the boy's wrestling coach. Prosecutors said the abuse also involved "other minors," and included touching their genitals or engaging in oral sex.
In their court filings, prosecutors, seeking a harsh penalty, took aim at "the actions at the core of this case took place not on the defendant's national public stage but in his private one-on-one encounters in an empty locker room and a motel room with minors that violated the special trust between those young boys and their coach."
 
The allegations paint a horrifying picture of a monster. They also raise an alarming realization that Dennis Hastert -- the longest serving Republican House Speaker in American history, a man who was two heartbeats from the presidency of the United States for eight years -- allegedly spent part of his life as a serial child molester, unbeknownst to anyone except Hastert and his victims.
A woman holds leaflets for candidate Donald Trump at the Colorado District 2 meeting, April 8, 2016. (Photo by Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post/Getty)

Trump's amateurishness starts to catch up with him

04/11/16 09:20AM

On April 1, the fine folks at NBC's First Read took note of Donald Trump's "Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Week." At the time, the assessment was more than fair: the Republican frontrunner had not only just lost the Wisconsin primary, but his campaign manager had been charged with misdemeanor battery, and Trump tripped badly over his own vague positions on reproductive rights.
 
But by some quantitative measures, last week may have been worse.
 
Ted Cruz's presidential campaign clearly out-hustled Team Trump in Colorado's district conventions, helping narrow the delegate gap a bit. The results were similar in South Carolina. Indiana will host an important primary on May 3, but in the meantime, Politico reported, "Republican Party insiders in the state will select 27 delegates to the national convention on Saturday, and Trump is assured to be nearly shut out of support, according to interviews with a dozen party leaders and officials involved in the delegate selection process."
 
In the state of Washington, Team Trump sent an email to supporters on Friday, urging them to sign up to be a potential Trump delegate. The "filing deadline to appear on the printed ballot in Saturday's conventions and caucuses" was Wednesday -- two days before the email went out. (Saturday in Colorado, where Trump barely tried, his backers passed out flyers at the convention site "with official campaign slate of 13 delegates and 13 alternates accompanied by their three-digit number position on the 600-plus person ballot. Seven of the names, however, directed people to the wrong number and one delegate's name was misspelled.)

The GOP candidate is aware of the circumstances, and as the Washington Post reported, Trump is outraged -- not by his campaign operation failing to do the necessary follow-through, but by the process itself.
Donald Trump used his first campaign rally in western New York to attack Sen. Ted Cruz for something the Texan happily boasts about: mastering party rules to elect his delegate slates to the Republican National Convention.
 
"They're trying to subvert the movement," Trump said to thousands of voters crammed into a frigid airplane hangar Sunday. "They can't do it with bodies, so they're trying to subvert the movement with crooked shenanigans."
As proof of the system being "corrupt," the New York Republican added, "I go to Louisiana, I win Louisiana. Then I find out I get less delegates than Cruz because of some nonsense."
 
And therein lies the problem: as Trump sees it, the inconvenient, and at times complex, mechanics of the presidential nominating process are "nonsensical" details with which he'd prefer not to bother.
Democratic Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) speaks at a event March 30, 2016 in Madison, Wis. (Photo by Darren Hauck/Getty)

Sanders wins another caucus, defeating Clinton in Wyoming

04/11/16 08:40AM

For Bernie Sanders supporters hoping to see the senator's winning streak continue, the weekend brought more good news when the Vermont senator won the Wyoming caucuses, though it came with an unfortunate catch.
Wyoming's Democrats were picking their favorite candidate for the party's nomination at the state's 23 county caucuses.
 
A total of 14 pledged delegates were up for grabs in the state, and Sanders and Clinton will split those delegates at 7 each, according to estimates based on the state convention delegates elected at Saturday's county convention.
Sanders won with nearly 56% of the vote, which meant a double-digit victory over Clinton, but not quite the lopsided landslide wins the senator enjoyed in some of the other caucuses in the region. Note, for example, the senator's enormous successes in neighboring states such as Utah, Nebraska, and Idaho.
 
Regardless, the good news for Team Sanders is that he scored another victory, which means a fresh fundraising opportunity and a sense of "momentum" as the race for the Democratic nomination moves forward. The bad news is, what the senator needs is to narrow his delegate deficit against Clinton, and his not-quite-as-big-as-expected win in Wyoming appears to have given him a net gain of zero.
Scott Walker speaks during the American Conservative Unions Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) meeting in National Harbor, Md., March 3, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty)

Court strikes down Walker's 'right-to-work' law in Wisconsin

04/11/16 08:00AM

Working with a Republican-led legislature, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has had considerable success passing practically anything he's wanted, taking the Badger State in a far-right direction while Wisconsin Democrats have struggled to slow Republicans down. The courts, however, have posed a far greater obstacle for far-right shift.
 
Walker's voter-suppression tactics ran into some resistance in the courts, as did the governor's restrictions on reproductive rights. The latest hiccup came late Friday, when a Wisconsin court struck down Walker's anti-union "right-to-work" law, ruling that that the measure violates the state constitution. The Associated Press reported:
Three unions filed the lawsuit last year shortly after Walker signed the bill into law. Right-to-work laws prohibit businesses and unions from reaching agreements that require all workers, not just union members, to pay union dues. Twenty-five other states have such laws.
 
The unions argued that Wisconsin's law was an unconstitutional seizure of union property since unions now must extend benefits to workers who don't pay dues. Dane County Circuit Judge William Foust agreed.
 
He said the law amounts to the government taking union funds without compensation since under the law unions must represent people who don't pay dues. That presents an existential threat to unions, Foust wrote.
Not surprisingly, Walker, GOP state lawmakers, and Wisconsin's Republican state attorney general condemned the ruling, and vowed to appeal. Should the case reach the Wisconsin Supreme Court, as seems likely, the anti-labor forces will have reason for optimism: the governor has already helped move the state high court to the right.
 
But in the meantime, it's a pretty significant setback for Walker's agenda.
This stunning false-color picture shows off the many sides of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A.

Week in Geek: Explosions in the sky edition

04/10/16 11:07AM

New research by two separate teams of astronomers indicates that nearby supernovae left their chemical fingerprints on Earth within the last 10 million years.

Only the most massive stars go out with a bang, but when they do, they generate enough energy to create some of the heaviest chemical elements. One of these elements is iron, and more specifically iron-60: an unstable isotope of iron with a half-life of roughly 2.6 million years. It's this kind of iron that astronomers have found in trace amounts in sediments from the ocean floor.

Based on earlier evidence for iron-60 in the Pacific, a team of astronomers lead by Anton Wallner from The Australian National University set out to collect additional samples from the Atlantic and Indian Ocean floors for comparison. They found more of the same, indicating that iron-60 landed on Earth somewhere between 1.5-3.2 million years ago. Not only that, but they found an even deeper layer of iron-60 that dates back to 6.5-8.7 million years. This means that not one, but two supernovae went off in our galaxy close enough to Earth for their debris to reach our atmosphere in significant amounts.

"Close" is a relative term here. Astronomers can't say for sure how close the explosions could have been to our solar system, but it's safe to say they were well over 30 light years away, as anything closer would have produced enough radiation to kill all life on Earth. Simulations by Dieter Breitschwerdt and his team at the Technical University of Berlin, show that the more recent iron-60 could have come from a nearby star-cluster, the Scorpius-Centarus Association, which lies over 300 light years away in the direction of the constellations Libra and Lupus.

What I love most about these findings is how connected the depths of Earth are with the depths of space.

Here's some more geek from the week:

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A woman holds a Bible. (Photo by Robertus Pudyanto/Getty)

This Week in God, 4.9.16

04/09/16 08:29AM

First up from the God Machine this week is a story out of Tennessee, which already has an official state bird, state flower, state dance, and even a state firearm, but which may soon make the Christian Bible its official state book. The Tennessean reported this week:
After nearly 30 minutes of debate, the state Senate on Monday approved the measure, sponsored by Sen. Steve Southerland, R-Morristown, with a 19-8 vote, sending the legislation to Gov. Bill Haslam's desk.
 
While proponents stressed the historic significance of the holy book and its religious meaning, some opponents argued that the bill trivializes something they hold sacred while others stressed constitutional reservations.
The constitutional argument against proposals like this is pretty simple: in the United States, the separation of church and state is a bedrock constitutional principle. As we discussed the last time a state went down a similar road, our government is supposed to remain neutral on matters of religion -- leaving decisions about faith in the hands of the people, not politicians -- and for elected policymakers to specifically honor one religion's holy text for an official endorsement would almost certainly run afoul of the First Amendment.
 
There's also the matter of Tennessee's state Constitution, which explicitly says that "no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishment or mode of worship."
 
Taking one step further, however, other critics of the bill are also making a theological argument. For many Christians, the Bible isn't just some symbol to be added to a list alongside Tennessee's official state amphibian, state vegetable, and state beverage; it's vastly more personal and more spiritually significant. The entire political effort, the argument goes, cheapens the Bible unnecessarily.
 
Gov. Bill Haslam (R) has expressed legal concerns about the bill, but as of Wednesday, said he was undecided about whether to sign the measure into law. Tennessee's Republican state attorney general issued an advisory opinion last year arguing that state officials designating one religion's holy text as the official book of the state would be plainly unconstitutional.
 
State lawmakers passed the bill anyway. We'll find out soon whether the governor follows suit.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:
Friday Night News Dump: U train edition

Friday Night News Dump: U train edition

04/08/16 09:53PM

Shirin Sheybani, news ace, pits her deep knowledge of The Rachel Maddow Show's news coverage against a challenging set of questions for the chance to win some exclusive junk not available at flea markets and yard sales. watch

Anti-gay law could cost Mississippi billions

Anti-gay law could cost Mississippi billions in federal dollars

04/08/16 09:47PM

Rachel Maddow reports exclusively that just as North Carolina's discrimination law put the state at risk of losing federal funds, so too does Mississippi's new anti-gay law, with at least two federal agencies telling The Rachel Maddow Show that they are looking into whether the new law runs afoul of federal non-discrimination policies. watch

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