Thursday, March 29, 2012

Rebranding Obamacare -- March 29, 2012 column


President Barack Obama almost let his foes turn “Obamacare” into the political equivalent of “pink slime,” the distasteful beef product made of leftover trimmings.

Obamacare, even more than Hillarycare and Romneycare, had become a term of disgust.

The more his foes blasted Obamacare, the less the president seemed willing to talk about or defend his health care law. He barely mentioned health care in his State of the Union Address and routinely dispatched Kathleen Sebelius, his health and human services secretary, to extol the law’s benefits.

Politics is a battle of perception, and Obama’s biggest accomplishment was becoming a burden. Seventy percent of people say they’ve heard mostly negative things about the law, the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll reported.

Now that the law’s fate rests with the Supreme Court, though, the White House and Obama’s re-election campaign have reversed course. They’re rebranding Obamacare as prime filet.

Supporters of the health care law chanted “I love Obamacare” outside the court during this week’s oral arguments. Fans can “like” Obamacare on Facebook or finish the sentence, “I like Obamacare because…” on Twitter. A search for Obamacare on the White House Web site yields hundreds of hits. You can read personal health care stories titled by the individuals’ names, such as DavidCare and VanessaCare.

And in an in-your-face entrepreneurial move, the campaign is marketing the Obamacare brand with an array of “I like Obamacare” paraphernalia -- buttons, bumper strips and T-shirts. Mitt Romney hasn’t yet followed suit. His campaign sells goods with only one motto, “Believe in America.”

Republicans plan to continue hammering Obama over the law, but some Democrats say the attacks could backfire. If the court strikes down part or all of the law, the decision could mobilize Democratic voters.

Former Clinton strategist James Carville says if the court were to overturn the law, it would be “the best thing to ever happen to the Democratic Party” because health care costs would escalate and the growing senior population would react strongly.

Democrats would say, “We tried,” Carville said on CNN, and the Republican Party would own the health care system for the foreseeable future.

For now, it’s Obama who owns health care. Polls show the public divided on the law but against the individual mandate which requires people to buy insurance or pay a financial penalty in 2014. The administration is reminding voters about the provisions they do like, such as allowing young people under 26 to stay on their parents’ insurance plans. About 2.5 million young people now have insurance because of the law.

About 54 million people with private insurance and 32 million seniors on Medicare have received free preventive care – such as mammograms and vaccinations. The law has saved 5.1 million seniors and disabled people on Medicare $3.1 billion – with a B – on their prescription drugs. Insurance companies may no longer refuse coverage of children with a pre-existing conditions, and the law will extend that protection to all Americans in 2014.

If the law is still around. Obama insists that the Supreme Court will uphold the law’s constitutionality. A decision is expected by late June.

As for Obamacare, Obama did try once before to co-opt the term, telling a town hall meeting in Minnesota last August, “I have no problem with folks saying ‘Obama cares.’ I do care. If the other side wants to be the folks who don’t care, that’s fine with me.” After that, though, he and his staff avoided the pejorative – until last week.

Stephanie Cutter, deputy campaign manager for Obama for America, emailed supporters the other day. “Republicans have now spent millions on nasty TV ads that try to tear down health reform,” she wrote. “They even assigned the law a moniker that they intended to be a dirty word: Obamacare. Well, we just so happen to love the name. Thanks, guys.”

Obama’s second term may well depend on whether voters believe Obamacare means Obama cares or pink slime.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Inside scoop on Supreme Court arguments -- March 22, 2012 column


Here’s an insider’s tip on how to read the oral arguments at the Supreme Court next week:

To predict the likely winner of the epic battle over the health care law, keep track of the questions. The side that gets the most questions likely will lose.

That’s not just my guess. A few years ago, an up-and-coming federal appellate court judge studied 28 Supreme Court cases and found the most-questions-asked “rule” predicted the loser in 24 of the 28 cases, an 86 percent prediction rate.

“The secret to successful advocacy,” the judge observed dryly, “is simply to get the court to ask your opponent more questions.”

Judge John G. Roberts Jr. became chief justice of the United States in 2005. His comments in a June 2004 lecture to the Supreme Court Historical Society, printed in the Journal of Supreme Court History, provide a rare glimpse of how the chief justice views oral arguments.

“Oral argument matters, but not just because of what the lawyers have to say. It is the organizing point for the entire judicial process,” he wrote.

Roberts will open three days of argument Monday on constitutional challenges to President Obama’s health care law. A ruling, which could define the Roberts Court in American history, is expected by late June.

The Supreme Court usually grants only an hour for oral argument. To devote six hours to the health care law reflects the significance of the issues. And yet most people will never see the argument. No cameras are allowed, and only a few seats are available to reporters, sketch artists and the public. The court will release audio and printed transcripts every afternoon.

If you were to get in, you might get a headache trying to follow the rapid-fire action – even if you had read the legal briefs. That’s no mean feat as more than 170 briefs have been filed, reportedly more than for any case in history.

Gone are the days when lawyers had the time to methodically lay out their well-reasoned arguments. Instead, the justices power spray attorneys with questions from the get-go.

In his lecture to the historical society, Roberts, who clerked for the late Justice William H. Rehnquist and argued 39 cases before the Supreme Court, recalled his preparations for oral arguments.

“I always worked very hard on the first sentence, trying to put in it my main point and any key facts, because I appreciated that the first sentence might well be the only complete one I got out,” he said.

Roberts did the math and found that in a typical argument in 2003, there were 91 questions.

So do the arguments matter?

“Oral argument is terribly, terribly important,” said Roberts. It’s a time “at least for me – when ideas that have been percolating for some time begin to crystallize.”

When he reads briefs, his reaction typically is not, “Well that’s a good argument” or “That’s persuasive.” Instead, he’s thinking, “Says you. Let’s see what the other side has to say.”

But, he said, the doors begin to close with oral argument. “After all, the voting is going to take place very soon after, and the luxury of skepticism will have to yield to the necessity of decision.”

It seems antiquated indeed not to allow cameras in the courtroom, but barring them could help preserve the dignity of lawyers in a sometimes overwhelming situation.

It’s not a myth that lawyers have collapsed during oral arguments; Roberts recounted several incidents.

Nearly 70 years ago, the justices were exercised about facts in a commercial fraud case, and Justice William O. Douglas demanded to know who had written one of the affidavits – “at which point the lawyer fainted dead away, hitting his head on the table on the way to the floor.”

Court was adjourned and a doctor summoned. When the argument resumed, the lawyer, bruised but unbowed, stood, looked Douglas in the eye and admitted he had written the affidavit.

Roberts ends the story there. It suggests to me, though, that in places outside the media glare, decorum prevails.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A grill shows Obama's political heat -- March 15, 2012 column


By their gifts, you shall know them -- and Barack gave David a spiffy grill, custom-made by Americans in the heartland.

When President Obama played host to Prime Minister David Cameron of Great Britain this week, they were conspicuously first-name pals. On their guys’ night out, the world leaders ate hot dogs, drank Cokes and watched a college basketball game – as cameras captured the delicious moment.

Obama’s job approval rating may rise and fall, but the prime minister’s visit to Washington shows that, with attention to detail and image, this president can use his official duties to serve both his political and policy goals.

There was no shortage of thorny issues – Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, the sour world economy – but the visit also provided a brief respite from bad news through sweet symbolism. With such a deft touch, Obama will be formidable in November, even if gas is well over $4 a gallon.

For various reasons, the Republican presidential contenders in 2012 have to work to be “regular guys.” Obama seems to come by regular guy-hood naturally, which is a surprise, given the pummeling he has taken for his international upbringing and Ivy League education.

Creating an image through the news media is far from effortless.

On Tuesday, Obama flew Cameron on Air Force One to the NCAA game in Dayton, Ohio, a crucial swing state. Meanwhile first lady Michelle Obama took Samantha Cameron, the PM’s wife, to a Let’s Move event in Washington, where Mrs. Obama announced that she would be representing the United States at the 2012 Olympics in London. The Olympics, she said, are about more than winning.

To win re-election, though, Obama has to fight allegations that he’s un-American. To dispense once and for all with the birth certificate controversy, nothing says “born in the USA” like dad standing over a grill in the backyard. The grill Obama gave Cameron was also jobs-sensitive.

No ordinary grill made in China, this wood-and-charcoal number was handmade by Engelbrecht Grills and Cookers of Paxton, Ill., 100 percent made in America.

The White House said the grill symbolized the personal friendship between the Obamas and the Camerons and commemorated the Obamas’ visit last May to 10 Downing Street where the couples grilled and served food to American and British members of the armed forces.

The gift exchange is routine during visits with foreign dignitaries, but gifts are tricky. Most people may not know what to do about Iran, but everybody’s an expert in gift giving.

Obama hasn’t always gotten the gift right. When he presented Queen Elizabeth an iPod loaded with audios of his 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention and his inaugural address, it smacked of me-ism. He once gave former Prime Minister Gordon Brown 25 classic American movie DVDs, which reportedly could not be played on British DVD players.

If the grill fired right up, the ping-pong table the Camerons gave the Obamas also scored. That gift suggested that dad-in-chief Obama cedes nothing in the family fun department to Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, fathers of five sons and seven children, respectively.

The theme of Wednesday’s state dinner was “America’s Backyard,” and guests supped under fancy tents on the South Lawn on a “winter harvest” menu that included greens and early lettuce from the White House garden, an Obama innovation.

The guest list for state dinners is as closely scrutinized as Michelle Obama’s gowns, so reporters noticed that nearly four dozen of the 364 dinner guests were top fundraisers for the Obama re-election campaign.

A British commentator grumped that Obama’s use of the dinner honoring the prime minister as a campaign prop was “vulgar and insulting.”

On the other hand, some American news organizations pointed out how we know that Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, and Warren Buffett, the billionaire sage of Omaha, and the other swells are collecting large sums for the Obama campaign. It’s because the campaign has released the names of bundlers; none of the Republican presidential contenders have.

Obama is hardly the first president to use the White House bully pulpit to strut his stuff in an election year. The question is whether he can keep doing it so well.

©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Romney's chance to prove he's not his dad and be bold -- March 7, 2012 column


Sons of famous politicians enjoy the benefit of family name and wealth, but they also carry the burden of knowing their fathers’ mistakes.

George W. Bush learned from his dad the toxicity of the categorical pledge: “Read my lips. No new taxes.”

Mitt Romney, no master communicator, has avoided the kind of verbal misstep that doomed his father’s dreams of the White House.

In 1967, presidential candidate George Romney explained why he backed the war in Vietnam before opposing it. He said that during his visit in 1965, the generals and the diplomatic corps brainwashed him. What Romney thought was a throw-away line followed him to the grave.

Three decades later, Romney’s obituary in The New York Times said of the three-term Michigan governor who had been president of American Motors that “as a politician on the national stage, he seemed wooden,” and “the perception grew, fairly or not, that he was a witless candidate with his foot in his mouth.”

George Romney represented “the liberal wing of the Republican Party, supporting civil rights initiatives and government social programs and opposing the war in Vietnam,” the Times wrote.

Today’s political landscape could hardly be more different. Saturation news coverage magnifies every silly thing any candidate says, liberal Republicans have gone the way of the dinosaur, and Romney’s son is begging Republicans to overlook the inconvenient truth that he’s richer, whiter and bluer of blood than most Americans.

On Super Tuesday, Romney continued his slow slog with wins in five states, making it almost impossible for anyone else to surpass him in delegates.

But while Romney, who will be 65 on March 12, underwhelms voters, at least nobody thinks he’s witless. Pragmatists believe he’s the party’s best hope of beating Obama.

Eventually, Romney will have a chance his dad never did. His first big decision once he finally captures the nomination will be his running mate. He can make a safe, boring choice or he can seize the moment and do something bold.

Among the names on veepstakes short lists are Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Bob McDonnell of Virginia, and Susana Martinez of New Mexico. Remember that name, Susana Martinez.

Obama named the first Latina to the Supreme Court, but Romney could reach out to Hispanic and women voters by naming a Latina as his running mate. In doing so, Romney could reset the race and demonstrate that he understands working people as well as he does owners of NASCAR teams and multiple Cadillacs.

Susana Martinez, 52, the nation’s first Latina governor, was born in El Paso, Tex., into a solid, middle-class family. With just $400, her parents started a security guard business. She worked as a security guard while attending the University of Texas at El Paso. Her law degree is from the University of Oklahoma.

Martinez has strong law-and-order credentials from 14 years as a state district attorney in southern New Mexico. Her husband is a former law enforcement officer, and her stepson is a Navy vet and firefighter.

If her resume is thin – she was elected governor only in 2010 – Martinez, a conservative Republican in a Democratic state, enjoys some of the highest job approval ratings in the country.

“What makes Martinez’s numbers so noteworthy is that she’s doing it as a Republican in a state that voted for Barack Obama by 15 points in 2008 and appears ready to do so again,” the Public Policy Polling organization reported on its blog in December.

It’s worth noting that in 2008 Hispanics supported Obama more than 2 to 1 over McCain, according to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis of national exit polls.

Whether Romney will choose Martinez is complicated by the pesky coincidence that just four years ago the Republican presidential candidate, hoping to energize his campaign, plucked a spirited, first-term female governor from obscurity as his running mate.

For the record, Martinez says it’s humbling to be mentioned, but she’s only interested in serving her state. All potential vice presidents say that.

Romney still could shake up this presidential race. A bold stroke could be just a phone call away.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Why Santorum can't win (Hint: women vote) -- March 1, 2012 column


A grumpy reader wrote to ask why African Americans rate a month of celebration every February.

My guess is the man won’t be any happier to learn that March is Women’s History Month -- and that the 2012 theme is “Women’s Education – Women’s Empowerment.”

Today, more women attend college in America than men. But after the American Revolution, the patriots thought women needed an education only because they’d be nurturing the bodies and minds of their sons, the nation’s citizens and future leaders, the National Women’s History Project reports.

Don’t tell Rick Santorum. That sounds like an idea he could love.

The former senator from Pennsylvania is running for the White House by attacking contemporary American culture. He has special loathing for public education, which has helped millions of women make history.

Santorum, whose seven children are homeschooled, dismisses public schools as factories and relics of the Industrial Revolution. Education is the family’s job, he says.

“Not only do I believe the federal government should get out of the education business, I think the state government should start to get out of the education business and put it back with the local and into the community,” Santorum said in a GOP presidential candidates’ debate in Arizona.

Santorum also charged that President Barack Obama is a snob for wanting to send everyone to college, where liberal professors would indoctrinate them, and Obama could “remake you in his image.” Really?

No, Obama wants to do no such thing. Obama said he wants everyone to have educational options after high school – not necessarily college. As for indoctrinating and remaking – that’s more Santorum’s goal than Obama’s.

From bedroom to battlefield, Santorum wants to turn back the clock. He said last year “it’s not OK” for married couples to use contraception. He frequently praises his wife for quitting her career to raise their kids.

In his 2005 book, “It Takes a Family,” a response to Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village,” he argued that in most cases it’s neither necessary nor best for children if both parents work outside the home. He favors a ban on women in combat in the military and would reinstate “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gays in the military.

As Santorum’s views have become known, a gender gap has emerged, with Republican women voters favoring former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney over Santorum.

An Arizona poll found Romney with a 2 to 1 advantage over Santorum among women voters the week before the primary. Romney also led Santorum among men by 8 percentage points. Exit polls in Michigan Tuesday showed male voters almost evenly divided between the two candidates, but Romney had a 5-point lead over Santorum among female voters.

Santorum’s culture war is perfect if he wants to build that gender gap. About 60 percent of people believe higher education is a positive force in society. Fewer than one in four married-couple families with children under 15 had a stay-at-home mother in 2010.

Three in four American women have taken the pill. Americans support contraception, even Santorum’s fellow Catholics.

In his primary night speech in Michigan, Santorum tried something new. He thanked his mom and praised her education and career.

Mama Santorum, 93, not only went to college at a time when most women didn’t, but she also earned a graduate degree. She worked full time as a nurse while she and Rick’s dad, a psychologist with the Veterans Administration, raised their family.

“She balanced time, as my dad did, working different schedules, and she was a very unusual person at that time. She was a professional who actually made more money than her husband,” Santorum said.

Santorum’s shout-out to his mom and, indirectly, to working moms signaled he’d like to appeal to women voters.

Maybe someone told him women outvote men in presidential elections. Nearly 10 million more women than men voted in 2008. Male voters split 49 to 48 between Obama and John McCain respectively, but 56 percent of women voted for Obama.

Happy Women’s History Month.

(c)2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.