Thursday, October 27, 2011

Will black voters save Obama in 2012? -- Oct. 27, 2011 column


During the 2008 presidential campaign, supporters of Barack Obama rarely mentioned race when they talked about their favorite candidate.

It was as though everybody -- black, white and brown -- agreed it was impossible even to acknowledge race without being thought a racist, so it was better to keep quiet. Democrat Obama and Republican John McCain steered away from race a campaign issue, and some commentators wondered if we’d entered an era of post-racial politics.

Election Day exit polls shouted a significant racial voting gap. McCain won among white voters by a 12-point margin, 55 percent to 43 percent, while Obama took 95 percent of the black vote.

Polls indicate that the race schism has widened since then. In hypothetical matchups between Obama and Republican contenders in the 2012 contest, black voters overwhelmingly support Obama, who has lost ground with white voters and independents.

If Obama’s triumph failed to make us a color-blind nation, it may have succeeded in making it easier to talk about race.

“Not only are we for Barack Obama because he’s a black man -- I’m proud of that -- but I’m also proud of America for electing a black man,” Dr. Brenda C. Williams, a black physician and activist in Sumter, S.C., told me this week.

I had called Dr. Williams, who is 59 and a child of the segregated South, on another subject, but she spoke easily about how race affects her politics. She used to vote Republican, she said, explaining her reverse psychology: “I figured if we get Republicans in there, they’re not going to do crap for black people. They never have and they never will. We will have to get up and help ourselves.”

She and her physician husband, Dr. Joe Williams, opened their medical practice in Sumter in 1982 and later founded a nonprofit anti-poverty organization, The Family Unit Inc., which was originally aimed at encouraging African-American couples to marry and form families. And, by the way, she said proudly, she hasn’t taken a dime in federal grants.

Williams sees doctoring as more than taking care of physical ailments. She looks at the whole person and even registers her patients to vote. When candidate Obama came along, Williams was impressed with his background as a community organizer and his commitment to helping the poor. During the 2008 campaign, she played videos of Obama’s speeches in her waiting room and expanded her voter registration drives to trailer parks and jails.

As Obama seeks re-election, unemployment rate among blacks is a devastating 16 percent, twice the rate for whites and far above the national rate of 9.1 percent.

Some prominent blacks blame the president for not doing more. Princeton professor Cornel West called Obama “the black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs.” West and talk show host and author Tavis Smiley went on a poverty tour to draw attention to rising poverty and joblessness.

Obama is “not perfect,” Brenda Williams concedes. “Nobody comes close to being perfect.”

But when black registered voters were asked earlier this month whether they preferred Obama or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as their next president, 95 percent picked Obama.

Among white registered voters, Romney beat out Obama by 20 points, 58 percent to 38 percent, according to the Pew Research Center poll. Exit polls in 2008 found that Obama benefited from an 8 point lead over McCain among independent voters, but Romney held a 13-point lead over Obama among independents in the latest Pew poll.

“I don’t think his white supporters will come out as fervently as before,” Williams predicted. “They expected more out of him than they would have expected of a white person.”

The poll numbers suggest that Obama will need black voters more than he did last time, and his challenge will be turning them out. When he tried to gin up enthusiasm last month, some blacks objected to his scolding tone.

“I expect all of you to march with me and press on,” Obama said at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation dinner. “Shake it off. Stop complaining. Stop grumbling. Stop crying.”

His re-election likely will depend on the dedication of people like Williams, who introduced Obama at a rally in Sumter before the primary in January 2008. Before they went onstage, Obama bent down and whispered in Williams’ ear.

“Pray for me,” he said. “Pray for my family.”

“Oh, we have you covered,” Dr. Brenda Williams assured Barack Obama. “We definitely have you covered.”

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Serial certainty in the age of flip-flop -- Oct. 20, 2011 column


The Republican presidential candidates’ debate Tuesday in Las Vegas was riddled with charges, contradictions and confusion. Here’s a snippet:

Mitt Romney: “Actually, Newt, we got the idea of an individual mandate from you.”

Newt Gingrich: “That’s not true. You got it from the Heritage Foundation.”

Romney: “Yes, we got it from you, and you got it from the Heritage Foundation and from you.”

Gingrich: “Wait a second. What you just said is not true. You did not get that from me. You got it from the Heritage Foundation.”

After another volley of riveting verbal tennis, Romney: “OK, let me ask, have you supported in the past an individual mandate?”

Gingrich: “I absolutely did, with the Heritage Foundation against Hillarycare.”

Point for Romney, sort of. The exchange reminded Republican voters that Gingrich had been for the individual mandate – the requirement in the health care reform law that people purchase health insurance -- before he was against it. Flip-flop.

In the 1990s, Gingrich and the conservative Heritage Foundation advocated requiring people to purchase health insurance. At the time, Hillary Clinton’s health care plan lacked such a requirement.

Gingrich, a former speaker of the House, continued to back a mandate until he started running for president. In May, he told David Gregory on NBC’s Meet the Press, “I agree that all of us have a responsibility to pay—help pay for health care.”

And Gingrich said, “I’ve said consistently we ought to have some requirement that you either have health insurance or you post a bond.”

Naturally, a furor erupted among those on the right who now regard the individual mandate as an abomination. The next day, candidate Gingrich appeared in a campaign video, saying, “I am completely opposed to the Obamacare mandate on individuals.”

Serial certainty is hardly unusual in politics. Nearly every politician has changed sides on the requirement that people buy health insurance or pay a penalty. Hillary Clinton reversed course and as a presidential candidate in 2008 supported a mandate, which candidate Barrack Obama then opposed.

But as president, Obama made the mandate a central part of his health reform law, which was patterned after Mitt Romney’s health care reform law in Massachusetts, which did spring from the Heritage Foundation. The idea behind the mandate is to require nearly everyone, especially the young and healthy who are unlikely to need care, to carry insurance, spreading costs and risks, and making coverage more affordable and available for all.

Presidential candidates love to point out opponents’ inconsistencies and undermine their credibility. A winning candidate must inspire trust, and the last thing people want in these times of shifting economic and social sands is more uncertainty.

Claude S. Fischer, a sociology professor at University of California Berkeley, noted on his “Made in America” blog this week that, “Much of our civic and social discussions are dominated by the voices of people who are absolutely certain. The speakers brook no thought that their claims are provisional, that future evidence or future reflection might overturn them.

“Those who accept more ambiguity are at a disadvantage. Once these uncertain folks grant that their opponents just could be — perhaps in certain cases, perhaps partially — right, they have lost the initiative to the certain-truth warriors,” Fischer wrote.

In the debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., sounded like a certain-truth warrior when she said, “Even the Obama administration chose to reject part of Obamacare...Now the administration is arguing with itself.”

She was referring to Obama’s pulling the plug on the CLASS Act, a long-term care insurance program, after studies found the voluntary program would not be solvent for many decades. Conservatives were gleeful, and many Obama supporters dismayed by what they saw as Obama’s surrendering on another principle.

The New York Times, though, editorialized that Obama’s decision to drop the CLASS Act “shows a welcome flexibility by the White House that bodes well for carrying out all provisions.”

To which, a cynic might add: unless it doesn’t.

What should a voter make of flip-flops? We want leaders who have principles and stick to them but are also thoughtful and willing to learn. We can admit more uncertainty; most issues are not black and white but shades of gray.

Voters can decide whether a candidate’s flip-flops are motivated by the desire to improve public policy or to shore up his or her political fortune -- and vote accordingly.

c) 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Citizen Cain and the perils of ice cream politics -- Oct. 13, 2011 column


Herman Cain denies he’s the ice cream flavor of the week, “because Haagen-Dazs black walnut tastes good all the time.”

Enjoy such Cain one-liners while you can. Like ice cream, he’s bound to melt.

Poor Citizen Cain. He’s so certain of victory in 2012 that he explains in his new book, “This is Herman Cain!: My Journey to the White House,” why he scrapped all but one of the inaugural balls.

Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, rode an ABM missile – Anybody But Mitt – to the front of the GOP presidential pack only to find party leaders lining up behind the former Massachusetts governor.

Cain led Mitt Romney 27 percent to 23 percent among Republican primary voters in the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll with Texas Gov. Rick Perry a distant third, at 16 percent. Cain had a larger lead, 30 percent to Romney’s 22 percent, among registered Republican voters in a national Public Policy Polling survey.

The Cain surge in the polls follows the Perry surge that followed the Rep. Michele Bachmann surge that followed The Donald surge, as in Trump. Tortoise Romney has been stuck at 23 percent since August, unable to win conservatives who distrust him because of “RomneyCare,” his health care program in Massachusetts, and his flip-flops on abortion, gay rights, immigration and other issues.

The first voters won’t cast actual ballots for at least two months, although New Hampshire is making noises about moving its primary to Dec. 6 or 13. That’s enough time for Cain to prove how his 9-9-9 plan adds up, for Rick Perry to reinvent himself or another twist on the winding road to a GOP presidential nominee.

But no. Republican leaders want to end the suspense. A page one story in The Washington Post Thursday trumpeted “GOP views Romney as `inevitable’ nominee.”

``What’s the rush?” columnist Daniel Henninger asked the same day in The Wall Street Journal, arguing that Romney needs the experience of more competition before he takes on Obama and tries to appeal to voters across the political spectrum.

For Republicans, this presidential campaign has been a tug-of-war between heart and head, between sentimental favorites and the pragmatic goal of making Barack Obama a one-term president. The head apparently is winning.

After New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie broke GOP hearts by declaring he really wasn’t running and was endorsing Romney, prominent Republicans began flocking to Romney, including Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., and former Sens. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., and Mel Martinez, R-Fla.

Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y., a former FBI agent who was elected to Congress last year thanks to tea party anger, endorsed Romney Sunday, acknowledging that tea partiers “may feel Governor Romney is not conservative enough for them. I would counter argue that he’s certainly more conservative than President Obama.

“Sometimes you don’t get everything you want, but if we want to save our country…what Republicans can’t do is turn this into a purity contest,” Grimm told ABC News.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, while not formally endorsing Romney, certainly sounded smitten.

“I continue to be impressed with Mitt Romney’s performance,” Bush told CNN’s Piers Morgan Wednesday. “He’s cool, calm, collected. He’s quick; he’s agile.” Bush called Romney “very consistent and very disciplined.” And, he said, Romney would do well going against Obama.

Even right-wing commentator Ann Coulter is backing Romney – now that Christie is out. Her current dream ticket: Romney-Cain.

Another sign of Romney’s perceived inevitability: Team Obama is hitting him and ignoring the other contenders.

Speaking of which, as dumpy as his job approval ratings are, Obama remains a formidable favorite at the box office. During the third quarter, he raised $70.1 million, his campaign announced Thursday, including $42.8 million for his re-election campaign and $27.3 million for the Democratic National Committee. None of the Republican presidential contenders came close.

Perry was the top Republican fundraiser, bringing in about $17 million in six weeks. Romney raised $18 million in the second quarter and his campaign reportedly has said his third-quarter haul may be higher than $14 million.

Romney may never be conservatives’ favorite flavor, but ice cream melts.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Whose rights? Supreme Court tackles key church-state case -- Oct. 6, 2011 column


Does teaching kids reading, writing, arithmetic and some religion – even leading them in prayer -- in a religious school make a teacher a minister?

And, if so, does that prohibit her from suing under workplace discrimination laws if fired?

Not at all, says the Obama administration, which has landed squarely in the middle of a war between religious liberties and civil rights.

Yes, absolutely, say many religious groups, arguing that religious institutions should be exempt from laws that prohibit bias in hiring and firing decisions.

And so, on Wednesday, frustrated Supreme Court justices grappled with an odd question.

“What is the legal definition of a minister?” asked Justice Antonin Scalia, a query echoed by others on the bench.

University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock contended that anyone who teaches a religion class is a minister.

“We think if you teach the doctrines of the faith…you’re a minister,” said Laycock, representing Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School in Michigan in the case of teacher Cheryl Perich who complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that she was wrongly fired.

At the heart of the case is the “ministerial exception,” a legal doctrine that lacks sex appeal but is extremely important. Four decades ago, federal appeals courts accepted the idea that the First Amendment protects the right of religious organizations to make their own decisions about hiring and firing of clergy. Anti-discrimination laws that cover other employers don’t apply.

A woman who wants to become a Catholic priest can’t sue for gender discrimination, for example, because the church has the right to say who can and can’t be priests.

But just how far does the exemption go? Federal courts have ruled differently, and the Supreme Court may settle the matter. The ruling could affect millions of employees of religious groups across the country working in schools, colleges, hospitals and social service agencies.

Some federal civil rights laws do contain certain exemptions for religious organizations, but religious groups argue they should be exempt from all anti-discrimination laws as every employee is carrying on the ministry.

In 2004, Perich, who taught fourth grade, got sick and took medical leave. In time, her illness was diagnosed as narcolepsy, a sleep disorder, and she received medication to control the condition.

But when her doctor certified that she could return to the classroom after she’d been gone six months, the school refused to rehire her. Another teacher had been hired, and Perich was told to resign.

Perich refused and said she’d file a discrimination claim with the EEOC. She was fired, she says, in retaliation for threatening to file the complaint. School officials said she was a “called” teacher and under church teachings could not take her grievance outside the church.

Perich taught mainly secular subjects – math, reading, communication skills – and a religion class four days a week. Sometimes she led the class in prayer. Other teachers who were not Lutherans did roughly the same work.

The EEOC took Perich’s claim that that she’d been discriminated against under the Americans with Disabilities Act to federal court. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Perich.

“The case is remarkable,” Vanderbilt University law professor Brian T. Fitzpatrick said in an interview, because the court could rule that religious institutions are shielded from all anti-discrimination laws.

The justices wrestled with whether the courts can interfere with religious organizations’ decisions without meddling in church tenets.

Arguing for the government and the EEOC, former Solicitor General Walter Dellinger said, “This is a circumstance in which an organization is going into the public arena providing a public service, and in that situation, it ought to be governed by the same rules.”

The government has an interest in making sure citizens have access to the courts, he said.

Afterward, Cheryl Perich told reporters, “My situation really had nothing to do with religion.”

“I can’t fathom how the Constitution would be interpreted in such a way as to deny me my civil rights as an elementary school teacher, “ she said, according to a Religion News Service report. “I sure hope the court agrees.”

So do I.
(c) 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

AARP Bulletin: Supreme Court term preview

Far more people know that Randy Jackson is a judge on "American Idol" than know who the chief justice of the United States is. My "who's who" on the nation's highest court --

And a look at cases coming up that affect people 50-plus --