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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 4.20.16

04/20/16 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
 
* Flint: "Gov. Rick Snyder on Wednesday described the filing of criminal charges against three government workers connected with Flint's water issues as taking the crisis to a 'whole new level.'"
 
* Off Libya's coast: "Up to 500 migrants trying to reach Europe may have drowned off north Africa last week, the United Nations' refugee agency and an aid organization said Wednesday, although exact details of the tragedy remained unclear."
 
* In Riyadh: "President Obama and King Salman of Saudi Arabia met in Riyadh on Wednesday amid deepening tensions between their two governments over Iran, the fight against terrorism and the potential release of long-delayed documents said to implicate Saudi officials in the Sept. 11 attacks."
 
* Supreme Court: "Arizona's use of an independent commission for drawing state legislative boundaries survived another attack in a decision Wednesday by US Supreme Court. In a unanimous vote, the justices said the commission did not violate the principle of one person, one vote when it drew a new map for the state's 30 legislative districts after the 2010 census."
 
* Climate crisis: "The conclusions from a series of scientific surveys of the Great Barrier Reef bleaching event -- an environmental assault on the largest coral ecosystem on Earth -- are in, and scientists aren't holding back about how devastating they find them."
 
* North Carolina's problem isn't going away: "Target is joining the chorus of corporate entities taking issue with North Carolina's controversial Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, which critics have argued sanctions prejudice against members of the LGBT community."
 
* Onto the House: "The U.S. Senate acted in a bipartisan fashion to pass a sweeping energy bill, touching on everything from cybersecurity for power plants to the future of the grid. The bill resulted from collaboration between Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell."
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in Philadelphia, Penn. on April 6, 2016. (Photo by Mark Kauzlarich/Reuters)

On tax deductions, Sanders is no hypocrite

04/20/16 04:04PM

When Bernie Sanders said his tax returns would turn out to be pretty boring, he wasn't kidding. After a bit of a delay, the senator's campaign released his 2014 returns last Friday night, and as expected, there wasn't much in there of interest.
 
At least, that's what I thought. National Review published a piece this week making hay of the senator's deductions.
Sanders released his 2014 tax return this weekend, revealing that he and his wife took $60,208 in deductions from their taxable income. These deductions are all perfectly legal and permitted under the U.S. tax code, but they present a morally inconvenient, if delicious, irony: The Democratic socialist from Vermont, a man who rages against high earners paying a lower effective tax rate than blue-collar workers, saved himself thousands using many of the tricks that would be banned under his own tax plan. [...]
 
What Sanders did, using every option and advantage available under a Byzantine tax code to minimize his tax payment, is a normal practice for many Americans. But it's also exactly what the targets of his anger do. You can argue about whether or not that's greed, but it's impossible to argue that it isn't hypocrisy. The paragon of liberal purity is not as pure as he'd like the world to believe.
Actually, it's quite possible to argue that this isn't hypocrisy, because, well, that's not what hypocrisy means.
 
Current tax laws allow Americans to take a variety of deductions, and Sanders followed the laws as they're written. Does Sanders hope to change the laws related to deductions? He absolutely does, even if that means he and his family have to pay more. But those changes haven't yet happened, so the senator continues to do what he's permitted to do.
 
As Mother Jones' Kevin Drum put it, "If you don't like the designated hitter rule in baseball, does that mean you should send your pitcher to the plate just to prove how sincere you are? Of course not. You play by the rules, whatever those rules are."
 
All of which leads me to an ongoing point of concern. When I argue that many conservatives don't seem to understand what hypocrisy means, I'm not being coy or snarky. I mean it quite literally: some on the right throw around accusations about various figures on the left being hypocrites in a way that suggests they're genuinely confused about how hypocrisy works on a conceptual level.
A portrait of Harriet Tubman, African-American abolitionist and a Union spy during the American Civil War, circa 1870. (Photo by HB Lindsey/Underwood Archives/Getty)

The significance of Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill

04/20/16 02:20PM

It's been the subject of considerable public debate for quite a while. U.S. officials were committed to featuring a woman on American paper currency, but it was a matter of choosing the person and the denomination.
 
Today, that debate appears to have ended in the right place.
Treasury Secretary Jack Lew will announce Wednesday that abolitionist Harriet Tubman will replace former President Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill.
 
The long-awaited decision keeps Alexander Hamilton, one of the U.S. founding fathers, on the front of the $10 bill -- though suffragists who fought to give women the right to vote will go on the back of the bill, the Treasury Department confirmed.
 
Civil Rights leaders are expected to go on the $5 bill.
So, Hamilton, whose popularity surged thanks to the Broadway show about his life, gets to keep his place on the $10, while Jackson, a slaveholder who hated banks, will be replaced by a woman best known for leading slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad.
 
NPR's report added that the choice and the currency denomination carries a special historical resonance: $20 is the amount Tubman "eventually received from the U.S. government as her monthly pension for her service as a nurse, scout, cook and spy during the Civil War, as well as for her status as the widow of a veteran."
 
In other words, the Treasury Department has chosen wisely. There's just one additional detail of note: when we'll actually see the changed bills in circulation.
Flint crisis unresolved despite new charges

Solutions for Flint lag behind criminal charges and politics

04/20/16 01:23PM

Rachel Maddow talks with Brian Williams about the challenges the people of Flint, Michigan are still dealing with as the problem of their toxic water supply has gone unaddressed by the state of Michigan even as, two years later, criminal charges are filed by the state's attorney general over the cause of the crisis. watch

This Aug. 25, 2015 photo shows Gavin Grimm leaning on a post on his front porch during an interview at his home in Gloucester, Va. (Photo by Steve Helber/AP)

Court ruling backing transgender teen jolts larger debate

04/20/16 12:40PM

When North Carolina Republicans rushed through its controversial HB2 law, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) insisted the discriminatory policy wouldn't affect job creation in the state. The evidence is now overwhelming that the governor was wrong, with another tech company scrapping a job-creating project in North Carolina this week.
 
What McCrory needs is a way out of the mess he and his allies created. Last week's executive orders were intended to help resolve matters, but they did little to end the controversy.
 
Is there a face-saving solution that North Carolina Republicans could implement before matters get even worse? Maybe. Consider MSNBC's report yesterday on an important appeals court ruling out of Virginia.
In a major victory for LGBT advocates fighting legislative attempts to keep transgender people out of the bathrooms corresponding with their gender identities, a federal appeals court on Tuesday sided with the Obama administration's interpretation that an existing federal statute banning sex discrimination in education also protects transgender students seeking equal access to bathrooms and facilities.
 
The 2-1 decision from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals reverses a lower court's determination that a transgender boy did not have grounds to sue his Virginia school board under Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments over a policy requiring him to stay out of the boys' bathroom.
This specific case involving a Virginia high-school student is not yet resolved, but the 4th Circuit yesterday sent the case back to the district level with instructions that support the boy's Title IX claim.
 
And that ruling is of direct relevance to North Carolina's law, which was created in part to prevent transgender people from using restrooms in line with their gender identities.

Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 4.20.16

04/20/16 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items from across the country.
 
* A month ago, Ted Cruz was still saying he might win a majority of delegates before the Republican convention. That's now mathematically impossible -- even if he won literally all of the remaining delegates, the Texas senator wouldn't get to 1,237.
 
* The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has reserved nearly $40 million in air time for the fall, sending a pretty clear signal about where the battlegrounds will be. The DSCC has reserved $10 million in Florida, another $10 million in Ohio, $8 million in New Hampshire, $5 million in Colorado, and $4 million in Nevada.
 
* Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Monday he's "increasingly optimistic that there will actually be a second ballot" at the Republican National Convention. Yesterday, he clarified: "What I said, somewhat inartfully, was is that we will have a nominee once we get to 1,237 votes. If that does not happen on the first ballot, there will be another ballot."
 
* In North Carolina, an Elon University poll shows state Attorney General Roy Cooper (D) taking the lead against incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory (R), 48% to 42%.
 
* In Maryland, PPP's latest poll shows Hillary Clinton leading Bernie Sanders in the state's presidential primary, 58% to 33%. In a change of pace, Clinton is even ahead among younger voters in the state. Maryland is one of five states that hold primaries next week.
 
* The same poll found Donald Trump leading among Maryland Republicans with 43% support. John Kasich trails with 29%, followed by Ted Cruz at 24%.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback delivers his State of the State speech to an annual joint session of the House and Senate at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan., Jan. 15, 2014. (Photo by Orlin Wagner/AP)

Kansas governor faces 'open revolt' from Republican allies

04/20/16 11:20AM

The failure of Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback's (R) economic "experiment" should be pretty obvious to everyone by now. By slashing taxes far more than the state could afford, the Republican governor has generated debt downgrades, produced weak growth, and left state finances in shambles.
 
During his re-election bid last year, Brownback assured Kansans his plan would create 25,000 jobs in the state per year. The Kansas City Star reported last week, however, that job growth in the state over the last 12 months was 0.0%.
 
To appreciate just how ridiculous conditions have become, consider the fact that even Brownback's allies are giving up on his failed policy. The Kansas Associated Press reported yesterday:
After he became Kansas governor in 2011, Sam Brownback slashed personal income taxes on the promise that the deep cuts would trigger a furious wave of hiring and expansion by businesses.
 
But the "shot of adrenaline" hasn't worked as envisioned, and the state budget has been in crisis ever since. Now many of the same Republicans who helped pass Brownback's plan are in open revolt, refusing to help the governor cut spending so he can avoid rolling back any of his signature tax measures.
The key element in this controversy, even more than the growth failures, is state finances. Brownback assumed that massive and unaffordable tax breaks would not only boost Kansas' economy, they would also largely pay for themselves through new jobs and tax receipts from economic activity. When none of those benefits materialized, the governor and the Republican-led legislature faced a massive budget shortfall, which necessitated big cuts to things like education and transportation.
 
The more Brownback's policy failed, the more Kansas had to cut. The state has now reached the point at which the budget mess is no better -- Kansas has missed revenue projections in 11 of the last 12 months -- and the governor is calling for even more cuts.
 
Republican state lawmakers have come up with a new response to Brownback's latest request: "Um, no."
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert looks up during a ceremonial signing of a state resolution declaring pornography a public health crisis, April 19, 2016, in Salt Lake City. (Photo by Rick Bowmer/AP)

Utah labels pornography a 'public health crisis'

04/20/16 10:40AM

For decades, controversies surrounding abortion and LGBT rights have been staples of the culture war, but a variety of other issues have come and gone, fading in and out of the spotlight. Fights over school prayer and warning labels on albums were once quite contentious, but they've been replaced with arguments about bathrooms, fetal tissue, and country clerks who want to deny couples marriage licenses.
 
Once in a while, though, a culture war issue will emerge, then fade, then make a comeback. Women's access to contraception, for example, used to be a major national issue, before a national consensus seemed to emerge. It wasn't until very recently that Republicans decided to renew the old fight in a new way.
 
And then, of course, there's porn. This used to be a staple of the culture wars for many years -- I assume many of you have seen The People vs. Larry Flynt, for example -- though online advances changed the nature of the debate. It therefore came as something of a surprise when Utah policymakers decided to label pornography a "public health crisis."
Gov. Gary Herbert is set to sign a resolution passed by the state legislature last month that calls for increased "education, prevention, research, and policy change at the community and societal level" to combat pornography.
 
"Pornography perpetuates a sexually toxic environment," the resolution states. "Efforts to prevent pornography exposure and addiction, to educate individuals and families concerning its harms, and to develop recovery programs must be addressed systemically in ways that hold broader influences accountable."
State Sen. Todd Weiler (R), who crafted the resolution, told NBC News he's not trying to ban pornography, but he does believe it's "addictive" and he hopes to make it more difficult to access.
 
Maybe the culture war is like fashion: wait long enough, and stuff that's gone out of style will eventually come back again?
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets members of the "National Diversity Coalition for Trump," a day ahead of New York primary on April 18, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty)

Team Trump takes a big risk with staff shakeup

04/20/16 10:00AM

For months, if it seemed Donald Trump's presidential campaign had an amateurish feel, it was an impression rooted in fact. The New York developer has never before sought public office, and he surrounded himself with staffers with limited backgrounds -- at least in part because more seasoned campaign professionals gravitated towards more traditional candidates.
 
As it happens, none of this has hurt Trump's candidacy. On the contrary, Republican voters have liked what they've seen, and Trump has led the crowded GOP field for most of the last year. The fact that the campaign and the candidate didn't always seem to know what they were doing didn't prevent Trump from winning 20 primaries and caucuses, more than the rest of his rivals combined.
 
But the Republican race has reached a new phase, and as NBC News reported yesterday, Trump's operation is "in the midst of a massive restructuring and re-strategizing effort aimed at shoring up Trump's delegate lead."
Paul Manafort, whom the campaign recently brought in to manage Trump's convention operations, has stepped into a larger leadership role in the campaign and been given a $20 million budget to spend in coming primary states, a senior campaign source told NBC News. A meeting took place last Saturday in New York to lay out the new staffing structure, the source confirmed. The meeting was first reported by Politico. [...]
 
Manafort's ascension to the helm of the Trump operation means campaign manager Corey Lewandowski's role has been recast. While Lewandowski on Tuesday told NBC News in an email it's "not true" his position has been diminished, several sources close to the candidate and to Lewandowski tell NBC News that he is now essentially working as a scheduler and body man for Trump.
As part of this shake-up, also note that Trump's national field director resigned on Monday. The post had been held by Stuart Jolly, who, as the Washington Post noted, "had never worked on a national campaign before," but who worked with Lewandowski at the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity.
 
This news came a week after Scott Walker's former campaign manager, Rick Wiley, joined Team Trump.
 
BuzzFeed added, "Far from a tight-knit family of blood brothers, The Donald's inner circle has been purged and repopulated many times over the years." We appear to be watching this process unfold once again right now.
 
But will it work?
Committee chairman Senator John McCain (R-AZ) listens during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)

John McCain bows out of Republican convention

04/20/16 09:26AM

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) told CNN yesterday that Republicans thinking about skipping the party's national convention in July should think again. "I think that we should go," Ryan said. "This is our convention making our nominee, so I think everybody should participate."
 
The Speaker added, "It could be a great historical exercise. I mean, it could be something you'll remember the rest of your life." Note, memorable things are not always positive.
 
Around the same time, however, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told The Hill that vulnerable GOP incumbents might want to skip this year's gathering, looking instead for "more unifying events" where there's less likelihood of a "brouhaha."
 
John McCain has apparently decided to listen to Wicker and ignore Ryan. Politico reported late yesterday:
The 2008 Republican presidential nominee will not attend the party's national convention in July. Arizona Sen. John McCain told reporters Tuesday that he may forgo attending what's expected to be a contested convention this summer in order to campaign for his Senate seat.
 
"I have to campaign for reelection, and I have always done that when I'm up," McCain said.
Point of fact: McCain's claim isn't true. The last time the Arizona Republican was up for re-election during a presidential election year, he not only attended the party's national convention, he delivered a high-profile speech celebrating George W. Bush. For the senator to say he's "always" skipped the convention when he's up is wrong.
 
But even putting that aside, there are a couple of angles to this. The first is the prospect of a toxic Republican convention, which leading party officials want no part of, and which they will take care to avoid. We don't yet know how the Republican presidential nominating process will play out, but there's a real chance of a contested convention -- at which things may get ugly.
 
One Republican senator has already said he's prepared to skip the GOP gathering, fearing for his personal safety, and some additional Republican members of Congress have said they'll stay home, not wanting to be associated with a convention that elevates Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.
 
It's possible some of these folks may change their minds, but at least for now, it's emblematic of a more systemic problem within the party: Republican politics is so fractured in 2016 that many party officials, including the party's 2008 presidential nominee, have concluded it's in their interests to stay far away.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. speaks to Communication Workers of America (CWA) picketers in midtown Manhattan, N.Y., April 18, 2016. (Photo by Mary Altaffer/AP)

Team Sanders still has a plan to win the Democratic nomination

04/20/16 08:42AM

As important as the results were from New York's presidential primaries, nearly as striking was an interview that aired live on MSNBC last night.
[Bernie Sanders'] campaign manager Jeff Weaver pledged late Tuesday that the campaign would go all the way to the Democratic convention in July, instead of rallying behind [Hillary Clinton].
 
Weaver told MSNBC's Steve Kornacki that the race will come down to super delegates, whom the Sanders' camp will work to flip even after voting has finished on June 7. Weaver said he believes they will come around if they can be convinced Sanders is the stronger general election candidate.
It's worth noting that some of the top people in the Sanders campaign may not be unanimous on this front. Tad Devine, Sanders' senior adviser, told reporters last night that after next week's five primaries, the campaign will "assess where we are." That's generally not a phrase campaign professionals use when getting ready to fight on, no matter what.
 
But around the same time. Weaver made a very different kind of argument. Kornacki walked through the delegate math with Sanders' campaign manager, trying to get a sense of how the senator intended to close the gap among pledged delegates. Weaver avoided specifics, probably because proportional delegate distribution makes it extremely difficult for Sanders to catch up to Clinton.
 
But ultimately, Weaver doesn't believe the senator has to catch up to Clinton at all -- because Sanders, his campaign manager argued, could still win the nomination even if voters side with Clinton.
 
The seven-minute clip is worth watching in its entirety, but I want to highlight the final exchange in particular:

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