A generation ago, presidential candidates could expect to field questions about marijuana use. The entire line of inquiry may seem foolish now, but at the time, the answers were actually characterized as important. (Remember, Douglas Ginsburg's failed 1987 Supreme Court nomination was a major national story.)
Some candidates would try to add more nuance to the issue than others. In 1992, Bill Clinton responded to the question by saying he tried marijuana, but he "didn't inhale."
The jokes, not surprisingly, soon followed, and Clinton's response quickly became a case study on the perils of adding too much gradation when responding to a simple question.
A generation later, no one much cares whether a presidential candidate tried pot, but Republicans seeking national office are looking for ways to finesse their LGBT views.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has attended a wedding reception for a gay couple, he said Sunday, though the potential 2016 contender still believes marriage should be between a man and a woman.
"That's certainly a personal issue. For a family member, Tonette and I and our family have already had a family member who's had a reception. I haven't been at a wedding," Walker said when msnbc asked whether he would be willing to attend a gay wedding.
As litmus-test questions go, this is an unexpected one. Marco Rubio said he would go to a wedding for a same-sex couple's wedding; Rick Santorum said he wouldn't; and Ted Cruz didn't want to talk about it.
And then there's Scott Walker, who opposes marriage equality and backs his state ban on equal-marriage rights, but who's nevertheless comfortable with a same-sex couple's reception.
All of this came the same week as Rand Paul tried to thread a similar needle -- he says marriage equality "offends" him, but he supports legal "contracts" for same-sex couples -- and Marco Rubio struggled to argue that vendors can't discriminate against customers, but they can discriminate against customers' events if they find the events morally objectionable.
Two months ago, Jeb Bush was asked about some of his brother's foreign policy decisions. "I won't talk about the past," the Republican said, adding his unannounced presidential campaign is "not about re-litigating anything in the past."
The Washington Postreported over the weekend that the former governor's position hasn't improved much since.
...Bush dodged reporter's questions about how he might govern differently than his father or brother or whether his views on foreign policy differ from them.... Bush has previously said that the intelligence used to justify the start of the Iraq war was flawed, but he pushed back against a question Friday about whether his brother had made any other mistakes with his foreign policy.
"I'm not going to get into that," he said. "That's not particularly relevant in a world of deep insecurity, focusing on the past is not really relevant. What's relevant is what's the role of America going forward?"
The obvious problem with Bush's position is that it's factually wrong. If there's "deep insecurity" in the world, much of it is the direct result of some of his brother's decisions -- most notably a disastrous and unnecessary war in the Middle East that destabilized the region.
If the Florida Republican genuinely believes his brother's wars aren't "relevant" to today's national security challenges, Bush is badly confused about the basics of current events. Indeed, Americans deserve to know whether the former governor has learned any lessons from his brother's devastating failure; "I'm not going to get into that" isn't a satisfactory reply.
The less obvious problem is that Bush has already surrounded himself with the Bush family's team of foreign-policy advisers. In the context of his 2016 candidacy, few things are as relevant as this basic truth.
In politics, announcements held until late on a Friday afternoon tend to be part of a low-key strategy: this is the time to release news you don't want the public to know.
It came as a bit of a surprise, then, when former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) said late Friday that he would disclose his plans for the 2016 presidential race on May 5. This wasn't an announcement, so much as it was an announcement about an announcement (at which point, the far-right Arkansan may or may not make an announcement).
Huckabee continued to act like a candidate over the weekend, sticking to the usual script in New Hampshire, but it was something the former governor said late last week that was more striking.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee claimed in an interview with Iowa talk radio host Jan Mickelson [Thursday] that the Obama administration has "an open hostility toward the Christian faith," and urged prospective military recruits to wait until the end of President Obama's term to enlist. [...]
"There's nothing more honorable than serving one's country and there's no greater heroes to our country than our military," he responded, "but I might suggest to parents, I'd wait a couple of years until we get a new commander-in-chief that will once again believe 'one nation under god' and believe that people of faith should be a vital part of the process of not only governing this country, but defending this country."
It's extraordinarily unusual for a presidential candidate, in either party, to publicly discourage enlistment in the United States military. For a candidate to do so while American military forces are engaged in combat operations overseas is arguably unprecedented.
Huckabee justified his position by arguing, without proof, that the Obama administration is openly "hostile" towards Christians, which leads the Republican to believe Christians, at least for now, should steer clear of military service.
"Why would they want to be in a military that would be openly hostile and not just simply bring some scorn to their faith, but would punish them for it?" Huckabee added.
If the Republican had any a legitimate case to make about anti-Christian discrimination, it would still be genuinely bizarre to hear a would-be president publicly suggest Americans not enlist in the military. But Huckabee's rhetoric is even more outlandish given that this anti-Christian discrimination is largely imaginary.
First up from the God Machine this week is some curious advice Oklahoma school districts have received from their state Attorney General's office.
At a national level, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt (R) is perhaps best known for his unsettling partnerships with the oil and gas industry, but this week, the far-right A.G. made headlines for a very different reason. The Tulsa Worldreported:
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has sent a letter to public school superintendents across the state vowing to defend religious freedom amid "veiled legal threats" over the distribution of Bibles on campus.
"Few things are as sacred and as fundamental to Oklahomans as the constitutional rights of free speech and the free exercise of religion," Pruitt wrote Tuesday. "It is a challenging time in our country for those who believe in religious liberty. Our religious freedoms are under constant attack from a variety of groups who seek to undermine our constitutional rights and threaten our founding principles."
At issue is an organized effort on the part of local Christian activists to distribute Bibles to public-school children in several Oklahoma districts. The Freedom From Religion Foundation apparently followed up, contacting school officials with a reminder about the First Amendment. It led the state A.G.'s office to weigh in with guidance of his own, telling school district that current law protects "distribution of religious literature in public schools."
To be sure, controversies like these pop up from time to time nationwide, but it's quite unusual for a state Attorney General to directly intervene with dubious and unsolicited advice.
The details in cases like these make all the difference: courts have never said schools can give specific outside groups special access to children to promote Bibles or any other materials. What is legal, however, are open forums -- if a school is going to allow distribution of one group's materials, it has to open the door to everyone.
In a practical sense, that means if an Oklahoma public school allows the distribution of Bibles, it can either (a) also allow the other groups, including Satanists, the same access; or (b) face an expensive lawsuit the district is guaranteed to lose, bombast from the state Attorney General's office notwithstanding.
Perhaps most importantly, this is hardly a question of "religious liberty." No faith has an affirmative, exclusive legal right to enter public schools and provide religious books to kids. To point this out to school districts is to defend our civil liberties; it's not an example of freedoms being "under constant attack."
RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC HOST: Senator Reid, thanks so much for your time today. Thanks for being here.
SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: ...pleasure to be here.
MADDOW: I have to ask you about the glasses. How's your injury? How's your recovery from that?
REID: Well, I hurt myself on January 1st and I'm making a recovery. I'm sightless in my right eye at this time, probably not going to much to correct that. So I have to do everything at hand to protect my left eye. But Rachel, I tell everybody's that watching, things happen but this was a freak accident and I'm now blind in my right eye. I'm so grateful that it didn't brain - damage to my brain. I almost got smacked in the temple there. And I accept where I am and I'm just out there. I look around, it's easy to do, people are always - have a few more problems than you have.
MADDOW: The injury is obviously such a surprise. It came out of nowhere. It ended up being a very serious injury with long-lasting effects. Did that have an impact on your decision to not run for reelection?
As Rachel pointed out last night, the recent spate of oil train crash explosions are the result of a sudden increase in the transporting of hazardous cargo, largely because of the boom in volatile shale oil production in North Dakota. The increase has been so sudden that safety regulators are having to play catch up. You might say they suffered a...
* Iraq: "An American is among eight people wounded when a car bomb exploded outside the U.S. Consulate in the Iraqi city of Erbil, a State Department official and Kurdish medical official said. Two people were killed in the blast."
* Republican judges, Republican lawsuit: 'The Obama administration faced stiff odds Friday in swaying a conservative-leaning appeals court to lift the freeze placed on the president's sweeping executive actions on immigration. It was a critical test for President Obama's Nov. 20 unilateral measures, which are imperiled by a lawsuit brought by Texas and 25 other states."
* He's right: "President Barack Obama on Friday slammed the Senate's exhaustive process in confirming Loretta Lynch as attorney general as 'embarrassing,' adding that it's 'gone too far.'"
* Yemen: "International aid agencies expressed rising alarm Friday over the humanitarian disaster consuming Yemen, as airstrikes and street fighting have intensified and nearly paralyzed essential services."
* Sometimes, appearances matter: "House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster is dating a top lobbyist for the leading U.S. airline trade association, an organization that spends millions of dollars trying to influence his panel."
* Good move: "Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and the Department of Health and Human Services enlisted the help of Elmo on Friday to encourage Americans to get vaccinated. Murthy revealed a 30-second public service announcement with the Muppet Friday in a blog post published on the HHS website, in which he discusses the importance of vaccines."
* Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, likes the nuclear deal with Iran (sort of): "The nuclear agreement between the international community and Iran already stands as a remarkable if incomplete achievement. As in all such deals, the devil surely lies in its details and in implementation. I like the phrase "Distrust but Verify." And yet the real significance of this agreement is broader. If successful, it portends historic opportunities for change, not only in Iran but in the Middle East as a whole."
It was about a year ago when New Jersey's debt was downgraded for the sixth time since Gov. Chris Christie (R) took office in 2010. The announcement came soon after the Republican governor scrapped his state pension-reform plan.
Four months later, the Garden State was hit with another downgrade. Then another. Late yesterday, it happened yet again.
Moody's Investors Service has downgraded New Jersey's debt rating, dealing the Garden State its record ninth ratings cut since Gov. Chris Christie took office.
The ratings drop by one notch, from A1 to A2, on $32.2 billion worth of bonds underscores the state's "weak financial position and large structural imbalance, primarily related to continued pension contribution shortfalls," Moody's said in a statement Thursday.... Credit downgrades make it more expensive for the state to borrow money to pay for things like road improvements and school construction.
The agency warned that the state's structural finances are in a precarious enough condition that future downgrades may be necessary.
Christie not only holds the state record for the governor with the most downgrades, he holds a comfortable lead in this ignominious competition against his next closest rival.
In the larger context, I don't doubt that the governor will kick off his presidential campaign soon, but I'm honestly not sure what he'll say.
It was just last week when Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) completed a rarely seen flip-flop-flip, denouncing Medicaid expansion, then embracing it, and then condemning it. The consequences matter: 800,000 low-income Floridians were poised to have access to medical care, but they'll now go without.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott announced Thursday that he will sue the federal government for allegedly coercing Florida to expand Medicaid.
"It is appalling that President Obama would cut off federal healthcare dollars to Florida in an effort to force our state further into Obamacare," Scott said in a statement.
By late yesterday, the far-right governor was reduced to comparing the White House to the mafia. "This is the Sopranos," Scott said. "[Administration officials] are using bullying tactics to attack our state. It's wrong. It's outrageous they are doing this."
This is actually one of the more amazing political fights in the country right now, and it's worth appreciating why.
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:
* Fresh proof that the left may have reason to like the Democratic frontrunner after all: "Hillary Clinton is planning to name Gary Gensler, a former top federal financial regulator and strong advocate for strict Wall Street rules, as the chief financial officer of her campaign."
* Gov. Scott Walker (R) often touts an electability message when promoting his presidential campaign, but the latest Marquette University Law School poll shows the governor's in-state approval rating dropping to 41%. In a hypothetical match-up against Clinton, the Democrat has a 12-point advantage in Wisconsin over the governor, 52% to 40%.
* On a related note, the same poll shows Sen. Ron Johnson (R) trailing former Sen. Russ Feingold (D) by a wide margin, 54% to 38%.
* Sen. Marco Rubio (R) appears to have gotten a bump in his home state of Florida this week, with a new Mason-Dixon poll showing him with a narrow lead in the state's 2016 Republican primary. The survey showed him with a one-point advantage over former Gov. Jeb Bush, 31% to 30%.
* Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) appears to be inching closer to a presidential campaign, launching a national political action committee.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), looking for a way to break through in the Republican presidential race, announced his support for major "reforms" to social-insurance programs this week, including a call to raise the retirement age to 69.
In the larger political context, the question was whether -- and when -- the more competitive GOP candidates would follow suit. Now we know.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) said Friday that the national retirement age needs to be raised "in relatively short order."
"I think we need to raise the retirement age, not for the people that already nearing -- receiving Social Security that are already on it [sic], but raise it gradually over a long period of time for people that are just entering the system," Bush said Friday during a speech in New Hampshire.
The Florida Republican didn't say, exactly, what the new retirement age would be under this vision, only that he'd like to see it happen soon.
All of this unfolded on video, which means that voters are likely to be reminded of this quote many times in the coming months, especially if Jeb Bush wins his party's nomination.
As Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) presidential campaign gets underway in earnest, there's been a fair amount of attention this week focused on his background in government. The far-right lawmaker rejects the "inexperienced" label, and he has a point.
Before joining the U.S. Senate four years ago, the Florida Republican served nearly a decade in the state legislature, including two years as Florida's state House Speaker. Combined, that gives Rubio roughly 13 years in elected office -- more than recent Republican presidential nominees like Mitt Romney and George W. Bush combined.
The better question is what Rubio did while in office. At the federal level, the Florida Republican has no real legislative accomplishments to his name, but Politicoreported this morning highlighted one of Rubio's most notable legislative feats during his tenure in Tallahassee.
In 2008, while Democrats were declaring that the time was right for national health care reform, Marco Rubio, the speaker of the Florida House, had a ready response: Florida should build a market-based system that would help contain the cost of insurance and make it more available.
Rubio pushed his no-mandate health insurance exchange, dubbed Florida Health Choices, through the state Legislature that year. "It's about competition, it's about choice, and it's about the marketplace," he told The Palm Beach Post at the time.
Florida Health Choices, which finally opened last year, now covers 80 people.
In case this isn't clear, "80 people" is literal. The figure doesn't represent some percentage of the state population; we're talking about 80 individual Floridians in a state with a population of nearly 20 million.
It's worth appreciating why the policy Rubio championed is such a dud.
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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