It was just two weeks ago when Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, argued that it would be "wise for Congress to come together and draft a grant of some authority" for President Obama to use force against ISIS targets. He just didn't think it's possible – not "in a million years."
"There is simply no way on earth that members of Congress are going to come together and agree on what the language for an authorization for the use of force in Syria is -- it's just not going to happen," Smith told the New York Times.
At the time, that seemed like a safe bet, and I shared Smith's assumptions. But just over the last couple of days, the prevailing winds seem to have shifted. While the week started with congressional leaders taking a pass on the issue, a new consensus started to come together: Congress can't just do nothing.
[I]nternally, senior aides to Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Majority Whip Steve Scalise recognize that there's a significant enough outcry from lawmakers to have an up-or-down vote on Obama's plan. The issue came up at a closed House briefing Thursday, and White House officials reiterated that it's their strong preference to have the language included in the government-funding bill, in order to orchestrate a quick passage.
The Republican leadership is considering a few options.
There's a pending measure to fund the government through mid-December -- the "continuing resolution," or "CR" -- that Congress must pass to avoid a shutdown. As far as the White House is concerned, that creates an opportunity: add the anti-ISIS provisions to the spending measure and lawmakers can tackle two important tasks at once.
But for many lawmakers, in both parties, it's not that simple. Some want to keep the government's lights on, but have real concerns about the counter-terrorism strategy. Others aren't comfortable with combining these two important-but-unrelated measures on principle. Others want to take more time, beyond the end of the fiscal year that ends in 19 days.
For those of us who believe Congress has a constitutional obligation to weigh in, the fact that lawmakers are debating how, and not whether, to move forward is itself a sign of unexpected progress. But that doesn't mean the road ahead will be easy.
Read enough polls and it becomes clear that public attitudes don't always fall neatly along rational lines.
On the deficit, for example, Reagan ran some of the larger budget shortfalls in history, after promising to do the opposite, and George W. Bush inherited a massive surplus and bequeathed a $1.2 trillion deficit. Clinton, meanwhile, created the first balanced budget in a generation, while Obama has overseen the fastest U.S. deficit reduction since the end of World War II.
And if you ask Americans which party they believe will do more to reduce the deficit, most will point to Republicans. The reasons for this have a lot to do with branding -- the GOP has a reputation on the issue, which much of the country accepts, despite the fact that decades of reality should lead the country in another direction.
The Republican Party has expanded its historical edge over the Democratic Party in Americans' minds as being better able to protect the U.S. from international terrorism and military threats. At this point, 55% of Americans choose the GOP on this dimension, while 32% choose the Democratic Party. This is the widest Republican advantage in Gallup's history of asking this question since 2002.
The specific wording of the question was, "Looking ahead for the next few years, which political party do you think will do a better job of protecting the country from international terrorism and military threats, the Republican Party or the Democratic Party?"
As Gallup's chart shows, the Republican advantage briefly disappeared towards the end of the Bush/Cheney era, but that obviously didn't last.
But like deficit polls, the perceptions appear to be driven almost entirely by branding, without much regard for actual events.
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 Michigan's U.S. Senate race, a new Suffolk University/USA Today poll shows Rep. Gary Peters (D) adding to his lead over Terri Lynn Land (R) and he now has a nine-point advantage, 46% to 37%.
* But while the U.S. Senate race appears to be less competitive, the same poll showed the opposite about Michigan's gubernatorial race. The Suffolk University/USA Today survey now has Rep. Mark Schauer (D) inching past incumbent Gov. Rick Snyder (R), 45% to 43%.
* In Colorado's U.S. Senate race, the latest Denver Post poll shows incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D) with a four-point advantage over Rep. Cory Gardner (R), 46% to 42%.
* The same poll shows Colorado's gubernatorial race even closer, with incumbent Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) leading former Rep. Bob Beauprez (R) by just two, 45% to 43%.
* Incumbent New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) thought he was cruising to an easy re-election, but this week, he received an underwhelming 60% of the vote in a Democratic primary. He said yesterday he's "fine" with the total, but few seem to believe him.
* If the latest Akron Buckeye Poll is correct, the gubernatorial race in Ohio is just about over -- it shows Gov. John Kasich (R) leading Ed Fitzgerald (D) by 19 points.
* In Louisiana, U.S. Senate hopeful Bill Cassidy (R) said this week that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) "runs the Senate like a plantation." Reid, who asked for an apology, told reporters, "Has he been taking lessons from Donald Sterling? Where did he get this?"
Back in April, I suggested that if there were a competition to see which Republican-led state legislature can govern in the least responsible way possible, Missouri would have to be considered a credible contender.
Many of these efforts have fallen short, thanks in part to Missouri's Democratic governor, Jay Nixon. But as we were reminded this week, when the governor vetoes some extreme measures, the GOP-led legislature can occasionally override his opposition. Niraj Chokshi reported:
Missouri lawmakers on Wednesday tripled the time a woman must wait to get an abortion, making its new 72-hour waiting period the nation's second-strictest.
Only South Dakota and Utah have equally long waits. South Dakota's is the strictest, as it excludes weekends and holidays from the wait and contains no exceptions for rape or incest. Missouri's law, which will go into effect 30 days from Wednesday's vote, according to the Associated Press, also contains no exception for rape or incest.
When the Missouri legislature approved the bill, Nixon vetoed it. This week, state lawmakers overrode that veto.
The governor characterized the policy as "extreme and disrespectful" towards women, and "serves no demonstrable purpose other than to create emotional financial hardships for women." Nixon added that the measure "presupposes that women are unable to make up their own minds without further government intervention."
There are also practical considerations to consider.
The debate over U.S. counter-terrorism policy is obviously complex, and in the wake of President Obama's speech this week, there are no easy answers. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), perhaps inadvertently, helped prove just how difficult the current challenge is.
As Amanda Terkel noted, the Florida Republican has been urging President Obama to be even more aggressive in confronting the Islamic State -- beyond the 150+ airstrikes the president has already ordered -- but in an NPR interview, Rubio seemed to stumble onto the broader problem.
"Absolutely it's a realistic goal. It's been achieved in the past," said the senator when asked by "Morning Edition" host Steve Inskeep whether "defeat" was truly possible. "This very same insurgency was defeated during the Awakening in Iraq. This is the same group that was driven out by Sunnis, who then reconstituted itself in Syria when that became an unstable and ungoverned space. ... But no matter how long it takes, we need to do it."
As Simon Maloy explained in response, "There you have it. According to Rubio, we can absolutely defeat a terrorist insurgency because we have already defeated the same insurgency that we now have to defeat. Again."
The point wasn't lost on NPR's Inskeep. "There are connections between this group and earlier extremist groups in Iraq," the host told the senator. "They were battled for years and pushed back, but here they are years later. This could just be something that goes on and on, couldn't it?"
Rubio replied, "It could, but that's not -- I mean, that's just reality."
For those who remain engaged in public affairs, the basics on contemporary politics are usually too obvious to even mention. We know who President Obama is and what party he belongs to; we know who Speaker of the House John Boehner is and his party affiliation; etc.
But like it or not, we're in the minority. Most Americans don't keep up with current events enough to know which party, for example, is in the majority in the House and the Senate.
It's easy to lament the scope of our uninformed electorate, but in the short term, it's also worth appreciating the practical consequence. As Greg Sargent noted yesterday, there's new focus-group research that shows many Democratic voters are likely to skip the 2014 midterms in large part because they have no idea what's at risk.
What if a key part of the problem is that many of these voters simply don't know that Democratic control of the Senate is at stake in this fall's elections?
That's one of the conclusions veteran Dem pollster Celinda Lake reached after conducting new focus groups and polling for the liberal group MoveOn. Lake conducted two focus groups of people from Detroit and its suburbs. One was made up of single white women under 55 and married white women under 35 (millenials). The second was all African American women. These are the same voters who are expected to drop off in many red state Senate contests, too.
Lake added that the drop-off voters "had no idea that control of the Senate was even up for grabs and were even very confused about who controlled it. These voters are very representative of drop-off voters in a lot of states."
Told that their state's election may very well dictate control of the Senate in 2015 and 2016, these voters' motivation went up. Reminded of specific issues at stake in the event of a Republican takeover, and their interest, not surprisingly, grew further.
The point isn't lost on Democratic officials, who've seen the recent polls showing Dems faring well among registered voters, but losing among likely voters. Greg noted the DSCC's Bannock Street Project which is "investing $60 million in organizing that is premised on contacting voters again, and again, and again," as well as "unprecedented levels of organizing to states that aren't contested in presidential years, such as Arkansas."
As regular viewers of The Rachel Maddow Show know, we've taken a keen interest in incidents involving oil-train shipments and the sometimes severe public-safety risks that come with shipping oil by rail. It's literally an explosive problem, as too many communities have experienced firsthand.
We're obviously not the only ones who've noticed. Just this week, the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration announced a new proposal "that would make it illegal for freight trains that are carrying crude oil to be left unattended on main or side tracks that are located near rail yards 'unless specific securement requirements are followed.'"
A July 2013 oil-train derailment in Quebec killed 47 people, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said this week that the new proposed rules are intended to prevent similar tragedies in the future.
In theory, this shouldn't be too heavy a political lift. Some Republicans reflexively oppose industry regulations, just as a matter of course, but in this case, as The Hillnoted, a fair number of lawmakers "have pushed for greater regulation of freight trains that are carrying flammable materials like crude oil." The political demand is based not just on the Quebec disaster, but also because of a related incident in North Dakota soon after.
But as Lindsay Abrams noted, at least one lawmaker is already pushing back against the new safeguards.
According to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., what the federal government actually did was pretend to crack down on rail safety, in order to sneak through climate change legislation. (Also, as he's asserted in the past, climate change is a "total fraud" being perpetuated by the federal government in its quest "to create global government to control all our lives.")
Rohrabacher lashed out at senior Transportation Department regulator Timothy Butters during a House Science Committee hearing on the Bakken crude, National Journal reports, suggesting that the agency's efforts to implement safety standards might be "a facade to obtain what we clearly have as a goal of this administration, which is to reduce America's use of fossil fuel, even though it is now being presented to us as something about safety."
Right, the Obama administration and its elaborate ruses. Sure, it looks like the Department of Transportation is creating new safeguards in the wake of deadly disasters, but Dana Rohrabacher can see through these bureaucrats' little game.
Towards the end of President Obama's remarks on national security Wednesday night, it seemed pretty obvious that he was once again relying on the notion of American exceptionalism as a defense for intervention abroad. I figured, at a minimum, it'd be a while before his critics on the far-right started attacking his patriotism.
He did the exact same thing last September, telling the country, "For nearly seven decades, the United States has been the anchor of global security.... The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world is a better place because we have borne them."
It took less than 24 hours for Sen. Ron Johnson (R) of Wisconsin to pretend Obama said the opposite.
"[The president] just has such a reluctance, such a revulsion to actually leading, utilizing America's military strength," Johnson said in an interview with NewsMaxTV's program Midpoint Thursday.
"Remember this is the president in the first part of his term who apologized for America," he said. "He doesn't believe that America is a force for good in the world. He thinks our involvement in the world actually makes matters worse. That we upset people because we engage in the world. Because we lead."
I've long marveled at Ron Johnson's deeply odd approach to reality, but this was jarring, even for him.
Even if we put aside the scurrilous "apologized for America" garbage, what's truly remarkable about the far-right senator's strange condemnation is that Johnson said Obama "doesn't believe that America is a force for good in the world" less than a day after Obama made a forceful case that America must be a force for good in the world.
It's as if Johnson isn't just struggling with current events; he's also flunking listening comprehension.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) delivers speeches all the time, but most of the time, they don't feature him leaving the stage while being booed. And yet, that's exactly what happened this week.
While the nation watched President Obama primetime address the threat of ISIS Wednesday night, something else was happening in Washington: Senator Ted Cruz was getting booed off the stage of a Christian event.
Cruz is often considered a rising darling of the American Christian right.... But Wednesday night, his Christian audience was largely Eastern and Arab. The brand of conservative, American evangelicalism that Cruz often champions -- one that often aligns itself with the state of Israel's interests -- did not sit well with everyone in attendance.
That's putting it mildly. A group called In Defense of Christians hosted a multi-day event in the nation's capital, and organizers invited Cruz to deliver the keynote address. The organization, which is committed to raising awareness of persecuted Christians and minority faith communities in the Middle East, held its gathering this week, and by all accounts, it had been a success -- right up until Cruz's remarks.
The right-wing Texan told the audience that Christians "have no greater ally than Israel." When the audience expressed its displeasure, Cruz pressed on, adding, "Those who hate Israel hate America. Those who hate Jews hate Christians. If those in this room will not recognize that, then my heart weeps."
When the booing grew louder, the Republican senator said too many in the audience are "consumed with hate," which, of course, made things worse. Cruz, just before leaving the stage, concluded, "I will say this: If you will not stand with Israel and the Jews, then I will not stand with you. Thank you, and God bless you."
After the event, the Texan told a far-right website the audience showed "a shameful display of bigotry and hatred.... Anti-Semitism is a corrosive evil, and it reared its ugly head tonight."
In other words, we're supposed to see Cruz as the victim in this story. In his version of events, angry Middle Easterners, filled with hatred, didn't want to hear his nice message.
Shira Springer, sports enterprise editor for the Boston Globe, talks with Rachel Maddow about how the NFL is making itself look worse as it attempts to control the damage to its image by a series of domestic violence scandals. watch
Rachel Maddow reviews the places in the world where the U.S. is already maintaining aerial bombing counterterrorism campaigns with no defined end as the list is set to grow to include ISIS in Iraq and potentially Syria, which is not open to that idea. watch