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Law enforcement officers, including a sniper perched atop an armored vehicle, watch as demonstrators protest the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Mo.

Debate over police militarization to begin in earnest

08/25/14 12:34PM

As Michael Brown's funeral continues this morning at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, it comes against the backdrop of a policy argument that's just beginning to take shape. The recent crisis in Ferguson is a combination of so many factors, but one of the more straightforward issues policymakers can address is the militarization of local police forces.
 
With this in mind, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) announced late last week that she will lead a Senate hearing in September to examine the militarization of local police departments. The Missouri Democrat is the chair of Senate Homeland Security's panel on contracting oversight, which she'll use to "examine federal programs that enable local police departments to acquire military equipment, such as the Defense Department's 1033 program for surplus property and grants made through the Department of Homeland Security."
 
As msnbc's Benjamin Landy reported over the weekend, McCaskill isn't alone in her interest.
President Obama has ordered a review of federal programs that help state and local law enforcement acquire military equipment, a senior administration official confirmed to NBC News on Saturday. The review comes amid national outrage at what many see as the growing militarization of policing in America. [...]
 
Obama has directed the review to assess whether those programs are appropriate, and whether police are receiving the necessary training to use the equipment correctly. It will also look at whether the federal programs are being audited sufficiently.
The White House-directed review is expected to be formally announced today, and will involve the Domestic Policy Council, the National Security Council, the Office of Management and Budget, the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the Treasury Department.
 
It is, as the New York Times put it, a "comprehensive review of the government's decade-old strategy of outfitting local police departments with military-grade body armor, mine-resistant trucks, silencers and automatic rifles."

Monday's Campaign Round-Up, 8.25.14

08/25/14 12:00PM

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:
 
* In a new ad, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) boasts that "more than 100,000 people" in the state have "gotten a job since we took office." That's true, though it's less than half of the 250,000 new jobs Walker guaranteed voters he'd create in his first term.
 
* It was incredibly close, but Rep. Scott DesJarlais has survived his Republican primary challenge, prevailing by just 38 votes. His challenger, state Sen. Jim Tracy, has conceded.
 
* Though most polling in Georgia's U.S. Senate race shows David Perdue (R) leading, the latest Landmark Communications poll shows Michelle Nunn up by seven, 47% to 40%. Beware of polling outliers.
 
* Late Friday in Florida, a state judge ruled that the new congressional-district map can be used from 2016 to 2020, though the previous map used in the last election cycle will be used in this year's 2014 elections. The ruling will be appealed.
 
* Over the weekend, Democratic National Committee members approved their 2016 presidential nominating calendar, which will begin with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1, 2016. As was the case in 2012, Iowa will be followed by the New Hampshire primary, South Carolina primary, and Nevada caucuses, in that order.
 
* Former Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who never showed much of an appetite for retail politicking, surprised many recently by hitting the trail in support of Iowa Democratic candidates. Let the presidential speculation begin.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) is questioned by a reporter as he leaves an event at the Iowa GOP Des Moines Victory Office on August 6, 2014 in Urbandale, Iowa.

Rand Paul's curious defense for undermining U.S. foreign policy

08/25/14 11:23AM

According to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), he recently traveled to Central America where he, among other things, met with Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina for 45 minutes and discussed politics with the foreign head of state. By his own account, the senator not only condemned President Obama for the recent humanitarian crisis along the U.S./Mexico border, Paul also hoped to undermine U.S. foreign policy during his discussion with Molina.
 
For reasons I don't fully understand, this generated very little attention in the political world. American norms dictate that U.S. officials, when traveling abroad, don't trash the United States while on foreign soil. For that matter, the notion of an American elected official conducting his own freelance foreign policy, working against the U.S. position while meeting with a foreign head of state, seems ridiculous on its face.
 
Similar controversies in the Bush/Cheney era were considered scandalous in Republican circles, but Paul's conduct barely caused a ripple. That said, the senator's office did respond to Democratic criticism with an interesting take.
Responding to the DNC's comments, Paul's senior adviser Doug Stafford said the senator "did in Guatemala what he does every day in the United States -- speak the truth. Career politicians and political parties don't get that, but the American people do."
 
"If the DNC and the White House don't see that their shredding of the Constitution and abdication of responsibility for securing our border is the problem, they are the only ones," he added.
Let's unwrap this a bit, because it's a pretty remarkable perspective.
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) answers a question while he is interviewed by former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in Chicago, Aug. 21, 2014.

'Why didn't you say that back then?'

08/25/14 10:53AM

Remember the government shutdown? Last fall, House Republicans thought it'd be a good idea to shut down the federal government for reasons no one, including them, can fully explain. It apparently had something to do with some ill-defined hostage strategy in which GOP lawmakers wanted to take health care benefits away from Americans, but the whole scheme was a fiasco.
 
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) reflected on the disaster in his new book, telling readers, "In short, the strategy our colleagues have been promoting was flawed from beginning to end. It was a suicide mission, but a lot of members were more afraid of what would happen if they didn't jump off the cliff."
 
It led to an interesting exchange yesterday between Ryan and CBS's Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation."
SCHIEFFER: I guess I would ask you first, why didn't you say that back then?
 
RYAN: Because I want party unity. I don't think it was constructive for conservatives to be carping at each other.
This is a curious argument. Ryan had a choice: support a misguided government shutdown that damaged the economy or support party unity. By his own admission, the Wisconsin congressman decided to prioritize the latter.
 
Ryan didn't think it was constructive for Republicans to be divided, though apparently it was constructive for Republicans to shut down the federal government.
 
I feel like this sentiment comes up more often than it should. Reflecting on the recent fight over a border bill, Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) said, "Before now, our leadership was looking at what can pass in the Senate. That's not my concern. I want the most conservative piece of legislation that can pass the House."
 
Right, because governing isn't important; Republican unity is important. The job of the House majority isn't to help shape federal law, but rather, to keep GOP lawmakers together, regardless of the consequences.
 
And speaking of government shutdowns, aren't we approaching another deadline?
Republican Wisconsin State Senator Glenn Grothman waves as he walks through the Wisconsin State Capitol.

Passing the torch to a new generation of fringe lawmakers

08/25/14 10:26AM

When this Congress ends in January, it will mark the end of an era for some truly remarkable members of Congress. Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Steve Stockman (R-Texas), and Paul Broun (R-Ga.) have given voice to some bizarre and twisted ideas in recent years, but each will be absent when the next Congress takes the oath of office in early 2015.
 
But before anyone gets too optimistic about a more reasonable House of Representatives, it's worth appreciating an unnerving fact: the far-right torch is being passed to a new generation of extremists.
 
In Wisconsin's 6th congressional district, for example, state Sen. Glenn Grothman was originally declared the winner of last week's Republican primary, but that announcement was rescinded when the tallies turned out to be closer than expected. Late Friday, however, Grothman was named the primary victor after all.
After the 11 counties in the district verified their vote counts Wednesday, Grothman maintained his lead by 219 votes, or 0.47 percent, but it was unclear whether the second place finisher, state Sen. Joe Leibham, would call for a recount.
 
Leibham announced Friday that he would not request a recount, despite the small margin. [...] Grothman will face Democrat and Winnebago County Executive Mark Harris in the fall.  The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rates the race as Safe Republican.
At first blush, this may seem like a fairly obscure race, but it's worth appreciating just how far to the right Glenn Grothman really is.
A Tea Party member reaches for a pamphlet titled "The Impact of Obamacare", at a "Food for Free Minds Tea Party Rally" in Littleton, New Hampshire in this October 27, 2012. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters)

A muddled message on medical care

08/25/14 10:01AM

Running against health care is proving to be far more challenging than Republicans hoped in 2014. Last week, for example, the New York Times asked Joni Ernst, the far-right U.S. Senate candidate in Iowa, about her intention to cut domestic spending. The Republican candidate said there are "a number of things that need to be trimmed across the board," before turning her attention to social-insurance programs.
 
"What we have to do is protect those that are on Medicaid now; those that are on Social Security now. That, we need to protect. We have made promises to these people," Ernst said. For emphasis, she added, "[T]hose that are already engaged in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, we need to protect that for them."
 
There is. of course, a problem: Ernst is a fierce critic of the Affordable Care Act, which she wants to repeal. In practice, if the Republican candidate has her way, roughly 120,000 Iowans who "are on Medicaid now" would lose access to medical care. In effect, Ernst is trying to have it both ways -- she wants to honor the "promises" made to people who rely on social-insurance programs, but she also wants to repeal the ACA (while privatizing Social Security and turning Medicare into a voucher scheme).
 
But Ernst's position is almost coherent compared to former Sen. Scott Brown's (R-Mass.) latest pitch in New Hampshire.
Republican Senate candidate Scott Brown on Thursday touted his votes for Romneycare, the Massachusetts health care plan adopted under former Gov. Mitt Romney, at a forum held to criticize Obamacare.
 
In remarks to about 10 seniors, Brown said he shouldn't be speaking about what he did as a state senator in Massachusetts, but the Massachusetts health plan he voted for in 2006 addressed problems with the uninsured. "We addressed pre-existing conditions. We addressed catastrophic care," Brown said.
Hmm. So Scott Brown opposes "Obamacare" and wants to see the federal law scrapped. At the same time, Scott Brown supports "Romneycare," which is effectively the same thing.
 
It led Jed Lewison to ask whether Brown now believes "people in his old state deserve all the benefits of Obamacare, but not the people in his new state."
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker addresses members of the media during a stop at the Madison GOP field office in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, July 23, 2014.

Wisconsin's Walker confronted with damaging new details

08/25/14 09:12AM

For all the current and former Republican governors facing serious scandals -- Rick Perry, Bob McDonnell, Chris Christie, et al -- let's not forget about Gov. Scott Walker. The Wisconsin chief executive is in the middle of a tough re-election fight -- which he'll have to win to move forward with his presidential plans -- and a lingering controversy is making his task more difficult.
 
To briefly recap, Wisconsin election laws prohibit officials from coordinating campaign activities with outside political groups. When Walker faced a recall campaign, however, he and his team may have directly overseen how outside groups -- including some allegedly non-partisan non-profits -- spent their campaign resources.
 
Late Friday night, the allegations surrounding the governor's office appear to have grown far more serious. Consider this report from Madison's Wisconsin State Journal.
Gov. Scott Walker personally solicited millions of dollars in contributions for a conservative group during the 2011 and 2012 recalls, which prosecutors cited as evidence the governor and his campaign violated state campaign finance laws, records made public on Friday show.
 
Among the groups that donated money to Wisconsin Club for Growth during that time was Gogebic Taconite, which contributed $700,000, according to the records. The company later won approval from the Legislature and Walker to streamline regulations for a massive iron ore mine in northern Wisconsin.
In an April court filing unsealed briefly on Friday, a lawyer wrote, "Because Wisconsin Club for Growth's fundraising and expenditures were being coordinated with Scott Walker's agents at the time of Gogebic's donation, there is certainly an appearance of corruption in light of the resulting legislation from which it benefited."
 
I think it's safe to say these revelations do not cast Walker and his team in a positive light. On the contrary, Friday's night's evidence appears quite damning.
Texas Governor Rick Perry speaks during an event at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, August 21, 2014.

Flubbing the details on Perry's indictment

08/25/14 08:28AM

More than a week after Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) was indicted on two felony counts, the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan shared her concerns about the case on national television yesterday. The exchange was one of my favorite of any Sunday show this year.
NOONAN: I think, yes, it was local Democratic overreach. It's just a dumb case. I don't think it should have been brought. Naturally he looks like someone who is...
 
STEPHANOPOULOS: But the prosecutor is a former Republican, I think.
 
NOONAN: That may be. But when you look at this case, it just looks crazy.
Of course, this is less about what "may be," and more about what is. In this case, the Republican columnist had nine days to get the basic details straight, but Noonan nevertheless raised the specter of "local Democratic overreach" -- despite the fact that local Democrats had literally nothing to do with the indictment.
 
Told that her key complaint was based on a falsehood, Noonan didn't acknowledge her error, deciding instead to say the indictment "looks crazy" anyway. Wayne Slater joked that the Wall Street Journal pundit "looked confused" by the details she should have known but didn't.
 
For the record, Democratic officials in Travis County recused themselves from the case, and the prosecutor in this case, Michael McCrum, worked in the Bush/Quayle administration. What's more, McCrum, who enjoys a solid reputation as a credible attorney, was appointed to oversee this case by a Republican judge. To see this as "local Democratic overreach" is to simply not understand what happened.
 
It is, however, this kind of confusion that has created an amazing political environment. The Dallas Morning News reported late last week that Perry is so encouraged by the political reaction to his indictment that his political action committee "is selling T-shirts with his mug shot on the front. On the back is the mug shot of Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg."
 
Remember, in this case, the reference to Perry's "mug shot" is literal.
A view of Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

'The key decisions' aren't just in the president's hands

08/25/14 08:00AM

The political world's preoccupation with President Obama's vacation is excessive, but it also obscures a more salient point. Republicans and pundits may be outraged that the president took some time off and played some golf, but Congress is in the middle of a much longer break -- and lawmakers have some work to do.
 
In his latest Sunday-show appearance, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) complained bitterly about the White House's foreign policy before turning his attention to ISIS. "There is no boundary between Syria and Iraq," McCain told Fox News. "One of the key decisions the president is going to have to make is airpower in Syria."
 
There's certainly ample room for debate about the merits of airstrikes in Syria, but the part of McCain's comments that stood out for me was the notion that this is a "key decision" that "the president is going to have to make."
 
I hate to sound picky, but there's an institution popularly known as "Congress." Under our system of government, it's supposed to play a role in these "key decisions," too.
 
Indeed, around the same time as McCain's comments, House Homeland Security Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) talked to ABC's George Stephanopoulos about lawmakers' role.
STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Congressman, if you get the kind of expansion [into Syria] you and General Allen then are talking about, won't that require a new authorization from Congress? The 2001 authorization targeted al Qaeda, not ISIS. It would be a real stretch to put this under the Iraq authorization of 2002. So won't Congress have to act here?
 
MCCAUL: We believe that the administration should be in consultation with Congress. So far, they have, under the War Powers Act. But once that period of time expires, we believe it's necessary to come back to the Congress to get additional authorities and to update, if you will, the authored use of military force.
As my colleague Mike Yarvitz noted, when McCaul says "we believe" it's not entirely clear who he's referring to -- is this the position of the House Republican leadership? -- but his comments nevertheless point to a possible congressional vote on the horizon.
 
That is,  at least in theory.

Funeral in Ferguson and other headlines

08/25/14 07:53AM

Michael Brown's father asks for calm on the day of his son's funeral. (St. Louis Post Dispatch)

The White House is sending 3 representatives to Michael Brown's funeral. (St. Louis Post Dispatch)

Pres. Obama orders review of military equipment supplied to police. (The Hill)

House Homeland Security Chairman says Congress will eventually have to approve airstrikes in Iraq. (The Hill)

British Intelligence identify man they believe killed journalist James Foley. (NBC News)

U.S. writer held by Qaeda affiliate in Syria is freed after nearly 2 years. (NY Times)

Russia plans to send a second aid convoy to Ukraine. (BBC)

Appeals court to hear arguments over Kansas, Arizona voter-ID law. (Wichita Eagle)

Napa, Northern California dig out from historic earthquake. (SFGate)

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A tablet of the Ten Commandments, which is located on the grounds of the Texas Capitol Building in Austin, Texas, is seen in a Tuesday Oct. 12, 2004 photo.

This Week in God, 8.23.14

08/23/14 08:58AM

First up from the God Machine this week is an amazing church-state story out of Alabama, where one public official is pushing a strange new argument about the Ten Commandments.
In an effort to educate the public on the divine origins of America's founding documents, Jackson County Commissioner Tim Guffey (R) has proposed erecting a Ten Commandments monument, as well as displays of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, outside the county courthouse.
 
"If you look at the documents that was written -- the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence -- they are all stemmed from the word of God, from the Ten Commandments," Guffey, who proposed the projects at a recent commission meeting, told WHNT on Thursday.
As the Huffington Post report explains, Guffey is working from the premise that the Ten Commandments, as the tenets appear in the Old Testament, is "not for any type of religion" and he may be pushing a religious display, but he's "not doing it to push religion at all."
 
To be sure, social conservatives seeking government backing for Ten Commandments displays isn't unusual, as evidenced by the Texas monument pictured above. But this Alabama controversy is rare -- ordinarily, proponents of the Decalogue don't pretend it's secular [edited for clarity].
 
Regardless, there are some fairly obvious problems with Guffey's pitch. For example, the U.S. Constitution does not "stem from" the Ten Commandments -- it's an entirely secular document that separates church from state. For that matter, to argue that a Biblical list of commandments that begins, "I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me" is not religious seems a little silly.
 
But the larger point is that some conservatives are so eager to have government extend official support to their religious beliefs that they're willing to argue that their sacred texts have no religious value at all. It's ironic, in a way -- it's tempting to think opponents of religion would want to strip sacred texts of their spiritual significance. Here we have the opposite.
 
Also from the God Machine this week:
Is the US waging war on ISIS? Will it be?

Is the US fight against ISIS a war? Will it be?

08/22/14 11:00PM

Congressman Adam Schiff, a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee, talks with Rachel Maddow about whether the military action against ISIS constitutes a war, and whether Congress is capable of doing its duty of debating the authorization of... watch

Lurid McDonnell trial takes personal turn

Lurid McDonnell trial takes personal turn

08/22/14 10:38PM

Rachel Maddow reports on the latest from the corruption trial of Bob McDonnell in which the former governor's defense strategy involves besmirching his wife, casting their marriage in a bad light, and making implausible denials about gifts. watch

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