* Watch this story: "American warships are prepared to intercept a convoy of Iranian ships suspected of carrying weapons to Houthi rebel forces in Yemen, senior defense and military officials told NBC News on Monday."
* East Africa: "A bomb attack targeting a van carrying workers to a United Nations compound killed nine people on Monday, police said. Authorities suspect Islamist al Shabaab militants of being behind the blast in Garowe in the Somali region of Puntland, police officer Mohamed Abdi said at the scene. Six bystanders were wounded, he added."
* High court: "The Supreme Court threw out a ruling from last year that upheld Republican-drawn congressional and state legislative districts on Monday, ordering North Carolina's highest court to reconsider its decision that state legislators didn't rely too heavily on race when drawing the district lines."
* Labor Secretary Thomas Perez talked with Greg Sargent today, offering a spirited defense of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which President Obama may soon negotiate with "fast-track" authority.
* ISIS: "The Islamic State released a video on Sunday that appears to show fighters from its branches in southern and eastern Libya executing dozens of Ethiopian Christians, some by beheading and others by shooting."
* I'd like to hear more about this: "The Justice Department and FBI have formally acknowledged that nearly every examiner in an elite FBI forensic unit gave flawed testimony in almost all trials in which they offered evidence against criminal defendants over more than a two-decade period before 2000."
* Michigan: "A suburban Detroit police officer who was seen on dash-cam video dragging a black man from his car before kicking and punching him repeatedly will be charged with two felony counts, a county prosecutor said Monday."
At first blush, it's likely the White House's critics will gravitate to thisNew York Times piece, headlined, "At Global Economic Gathering, U.S. Primacy Is Seen as Ebbing." But I hope they'll do more than just read the headline.
As world leaders converge here for their semiannual trek to the capital of what is still the world's most powerful economy, concern is rising in many quarters that the United States is retreating from global economic leadership just when it is needed most.
"It's almost handing over legitimacy to the rising powers," Arvind Subramanian, the chief economic adviser to the government of India, said of the United States in an interview on Friday.... Other officials attending the meetings this week, speaking on the condition of anonymity, agreed that the role of the United States around the world was at the top of their concerns.
For Republicans and a variety of lazy pundits, one assumes the reaction to such reports is reflexive : "See? President Obama obviously needs to lead more."
But there's a more meaningful takeaway from reports like these, published to coincide with the spring meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The Times' piece notes that it was the United States that was largely responsible for building the global economic stage after World War II, it was the United States that's directed the stage for generations, but it's now the United States that's struggling to maintain its primacy.
Washington's retreat is not so much by intent, Mr. Subramanian said, but a result of dysfunction and a lack of resources to project economic power the way it once did. Because of tight budgets and competing financial demands, the United States is less able to maintain its economic power, and because of political infighting, it has been unable to formally share it either.
And this is the part that the political world should pay attention to. For all the assumptions on the right about President Obama retreating from the global stage, that's almost entirely backwards -- Republicans are almost exclusively referring to a willingness to fight and prolong wars when they make the complaint. It's the White House, however, that welcome greater international engagement, but faces an intransigent Congress run by a far-right party.
As the world looks for more investment, American lawmakers ask, "How can we spend less?" As China looks to expand its influence, it's the U.S. Congress that asks, "How can we scale back even more?"
When Indiana state policymakers last month tackled a new right-to-discriminate law, it was an unfortunate move for all kinds of reasons. There were, of course, the obvious problems of sanctioning discrimination and doing lasting damage to the state's reputation, all in the hopes of solving a problem that didn't exist.
But there's also the fact that Indiana policymakers had other issues on their plate that deserved their immediate attention.
An Indiana county at the heart of an H.I.V. outbreak has seen a "significant increase" in the number of cases more than two weeks into a short-term needle exchange program, state health officials said.
There are now 120 confirmed H.I.V. cases and 10 preliminary positive cases tied to Scott County, the Indiana State Department of Health said on Friday. That is up from 106 the previous week.
Health officials who declared an epidemic last month have said that they expect the number of cases to rise as more people are tested. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent staff members to Indiana last month to help with testing, the Health Department said in a news release.
In late March, Gov. Mike Pence (R), on literally the same day he signed the right-to-discriminate measure into law, approved a temporary needle-exchange program intended to address the public-health emergency in the affected area of Indiana.
This afternoon, the governor, citing the preliminary progress over the last four weeks, extended the program. Note, Indiana law prohibits needle exchanges, but Pence is pursuing the policy anyway through a gubernatorial executive order.
As awful as Republican rhetoric became during the debate over health care reform, the "death panel" talking point continues to stand out as a uniquely stupid allegation. The irony of the attack is that it was one of the more bipartisan elements of the entire reform initiative.
The idea was simple: doctors would be reimbursed through the Affordable Care Act for helping guide seniors through their end-of-life care options. One of the idea's more notable champions was Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) who explained back in 2010 that having advance directives or a living will "empowers you to be able to make decisions at a difficult time rather than having the government making them for you."
The right didn't care. A certain former half-term Alaska governor started throwing around the phrase "death panels"; some policymakers who knew better embraced the lie; and the worthwhile idea was quietly scrapped, chalking up a victory for mindless propaganda over sensible policymaking. An Obama administration proposal for "voluntary advance care planning" in 2010 was also pulled in the face of right-wing apoplexy.
Jeb Bush, defending his efforts to keep alive Terri Schiavo, a brain-damaged woman, when he was governor of Florida, suggested on Friday that patients on Medicare should be required to sign advance directives dictating their care if they become incapacitated.
Campaigning in New Hampshire over the weekend, the unannounced candidate was asked about his handling of the Schiavo matter. Bush said, looking back, "I don't think I would change anything." Given his decisions during the controversy, that itself is a striking posture.
But Bush added, "In hindsight, the one thing that I would have loved to have seen was an advance directive where the family would have sorted this out.... I think if we're going to mandate anything from government, it might be that if you're going to take Medicare, you also sign up for an advance directive where you talk about this before you're so disabled."
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:
* A new national CNN poll shows Jeb Bush leading the Republican presidential field with 17% support, followed by Scott Walker with 12%. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio are close behind with 11% each.
* In the same poll, Hillary Clinton enjoys double-digit leads over each of the GOP candidates, with the former Secretary of State leading Rubio by 14 points, Bush by 17 points, Rand Paul by 19 points, and Scott Walker by 22 points.
* In a bit of a surprise, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) announced yesterday that will run for re-election to the Senate, rather than return home to run for governor in West Virginia.
* On a related note, in 2012, Manchin did not endorse President Obama and did not attend the Democratic National Convention. This year, however, Manchin has already endorsed Hillary Clinton.
* If each of the top Republican presidential candidates is going to have his own billionaire, it's worth getting to know Rubio's benefactor: Norman Braman, an 82-year-old Miami businessman.
* In New Jersey, a new Quinnipiac poll shows Gov. Chris Christie's (R) approval rating continuing to slide, reaching just 38% in the latest statewide survey. It's easily his all-time low.
There came a point in Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) 2008 presidential campaign in which the Arizona Republican felt stuck. He'd worked with Democrats and George W. Bush on a comprehensive immigration reform bill, which his party ended up rejecting. In a primary debate, McCain, running low on options, declared publicly that he would vote against his own bill.
Nearly a decade later, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) finds himself in a similar position, having worked with Democrats on a similar comprehensive immigration reform package, which his party hates even more than McCain's 2008 bill. If he sticks to his position, the far-right senator will alienate the GOP base. If Rubio abandons his own legislation, he looks craven and weak.
At least for now, the Florida Republican hopes to resolve the problem by taking both sides simultaneously.
As of last week, Rubio had written a bipartisan reform bill, then criticized it, then voted for it, then abandoned, then bragged about having worked on it. Yesterday on "Face the Nation," host Bob Schieffer asked the candidate, "If you became president, would you sign the bill that you put together into law?" The senator didn't want to answer.
"Well, that's a hypothetical that will never happen.
"What I would do if I was president, the first thing I would do is, I would ask Congress to pass a very specific bill that puts in place E-Verify, an entry-exit tracking to prevent visa overstays, and improve security on the border. Once we achieve that, step two would be, we would modernize our legal immigration system, less family- based, more merit-based.
"And then the third step would be to pass the bill that goes to the 10 million people that are here, or 12 million that are here illegally. If they have been for longer than a decade, they have to pass background check, they have to learn English, they have to pay taxes, they have to pay a fine. And they would get a work permit."
Under the bill Rubio helped write, undocumented immigrants who passed a background check, learned English, paid taxes, and paid a fine would then be eligible to apply for citizenship. Under Rubio's new position, they'd "get a work permit."
After a "substantial period of time," the immigrants could then apply for "legal residency," and after an additional number of years, the pathway to citizenship would open up. In other words, Rubio's new plan isn't quite in line with his old one.
In the last presidential election, the Republican nominee couldn't seem to decide whether or not he cared, or even believed in, the climate crisis. Mitt Romney ended up changing his mind more than once, depending on his audience at the time. The GOP candidate always seemed torn between acknowledging reality and alienating his Republican brethren who see climate science as an elaborate international "hoax."
We may be poised to a replay. Benjy Sarlin reported the other day on Jeb Bush's latest comments about global warming at an appearance in New Hampshire.
The most surprising turn came earlier Friday at a breakfast event at St. Anselm College, where Bush said "we need to work with the rest of the world to negotiate a way to reduce carbon emissions."
The comments marked a big shift from his previous criticism of climate science. While Bush criticized Obama's environmental regulations as an economic drain, his comments put him to the left of the Republican field, which has tacked hard towards climate skepticism since 2008.
A massive field of Republican presidential candidates is taking shape, and it's been hard not to wonder whether the field would be made up entirely of climate deniers. It's admittedly setting the bar awfully low, but the Florida Republican's willingness to express some concern about emissions is a positive sign.
At least it was, right up until Jeb Bush started adding caveats. Rebecca Leber added:
It's not exactly a secret that congressional Republicans hope the King v. Burwell case goes their way at the Supreme Court this year, gutting the Affordable Care Act in much of the country and stripping millions of families of their health insurance. But there are a few GOP lawmakers who seem to appreciate the fact that a potential victory carries some risks for the party.
This includes Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal last week warning that Republicans must begin preparing for the fallout associated with a high-court win.
A day later, the GOP senator, who's up for re-election next year, did a radio interview with talk-show host Jay Weber about Johnson's concerns.
JOHNSON: Unfortunately, President Obama's response to an adverse decision ... would be really simple. Just a one-sentence bill allowing people's subsidies to flow to federal exchanges and/or offer the governors, 'Hey, we know you got those federal exchanges. Just sign the bottom line. We'll make those established by the state.' And of course, he'll have the ads all racked up with the individuals that have benefited from Obamacare on the backs of the American taxpayer. He'll have all those examples as well so...
HOST: And the sad sack stories about who's dying from what and why they can't get their coverage.
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."
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