Thursday, June 28, 2012

In ho-hum era, Supreme Court manages surprise -- June 28, 2012 column


Washington rarely surprises anyone these days – not in the age of Twitter, wall-to-wall media coverage and strategic leaking.

When the president or Congress acts, many of us react with a shake of the head. “Ho hum. There they go again.”

But the Supreme Court proved Thursday that government can defy conventional wisdom, baffle the big brains in the news business and keep a secret. It can even do the right thing.

In its most highly anticipated ruling in decades, the court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s chief domestic achievement. The law will enable tens of millions of Americans to get health care. It reframes the 2012 presidential and congressional elections. And the announcement came off without even a drop of news in advance.

The ruling disappointed Republicans, buoyed Democrats and astonished everybody – even those covering the event.

“Supreme Court finds health care individual mandate unconstitutional” trumpeted Fox News. “Mandate struck down,” proclaimed CNN. Other news organizations grabbed the headlines and ran with them.

Except, of course, the court didn’t and the mandate wasn’t.

Virtually no one except the nine justices and some court employees sworn to secrecy imagined that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., a staunch conservative, would join with the court’s liberal wing and be the pivotal figure in keeping “Obamacare” alive. The vote was 5 to 4.

The news media caught and quickly corrected the fast and spurious headlines, but the goofs reflect more than the hair trigger of today’s news business. Read 193 pages of opinion? Who can devote the time? Just spit it out in 140 characters.

But this 5 to 4 vote wasn’t a sports score. Roberts’ ruling was as thoughtful and complicated as it was significant. He first sided with the court’s conservatives in rejecting the Obama administration’s main claim that the individual mandate, which requires most people to purchase insurance in 2014 or pay a penalty, was permissible because the Constitution gives Congress the authority to regulate interstate commerce. That vote was also 5 to 4.

Then, Roberts wrote, the penalty “may reasonably be characterized as a tax.” Congress can tax and spend, he wrote.

And “it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness.”

When the legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act were filed in 2010, most analysts thought the challenges were frivolous. Opinion shifted 180 degrees after oral arguments in March, when several justices asked tough questions of the government’s lawyer, solicitor general Donald Verrilli.

Before Thursday, the disappointment among the law’s supporters was so keen that the blame game for the law’s demise had already begun. The law’s supporters said Obama, a former constitutional law professor, and congressional Democrats should have realized the mandate would not pass constitutional muster.

It did, but not instantly.

Similarly, regarding Medicaid, the chief justice seemed at first to say the court was throwing out the law’s major expansion of the program that provides health care for the poor. Instead, the court left the expansion intact but stopped the government from pulling all existing Medicaid funds from states that choose not to participate in the expansion.

The health care ruling came as more Americans doubt the court’s even-handedness. In April, only 52 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion of the court, the lowest level in 25 years, according to a Pew Research Center survey.

Roberts, anticipating critics, emphasized that the court’s role was not to endorse or reject specific policies.

“We do not consider whether the Act embodies sound policies. That judgment is entrusted to the nation’s elected leaders. We ask only whether Congress has the power under the Constitution to enact the challenged provisions,” he wrote.

With polls showing many Americans disapprove of the mandate, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, said the only way to get rid of Obamacare is to defeat the president in November. Romney promises to begin the process of repealing the law on his first day in office.

Meanwhile, congressional Republicans vowed to renew their efforts to repeal the law. A vote in the House is scheduled for July 11. It’s another show vote that will go nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Ho hum. There they go again.

©2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Enough crust already -- it's time for Romney and Obama to roll out policy -- June 21, 2012 column


Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney wrapped up a bus tour of rural America in Michigan, where he rolled out a crust for an Honest Abe cherry-apple pie. When it came to policy, though, the five-day trip offered only crumbs.

President Barack Obama flew to an international summit in Mexico that yielded moody photos of the president on the world stage along with reassuring words about progress – and little of substance.

To hear Romney talk, Obama is a job-killing big spender who wants to put America on the path to Europe. Obama contends that Romney wants to slash taxes for the wealthiest while cutting the jobs of teachers, firefighters and police. Fact checkers say both camps are stretching the truth.

For voters who are sick of the endless “trust me – not him” attacks -- and that’s most of us, right? -- there’s good news. The stars may be aligning to force Obama and Romney to show their policy hands.

The Supreme Court likely will issue blockbuster decisions this week on health care and immigration. If, as many analysts expect, the court strikes at least part of the Affordable Care Act, Obama will be called on to explain the next phase of his health reform strategy.

Publicly, the president says he believes the law will be upheld and has made no contingency plans. At fundraisers behind closed doors, however, he reportedly has said he won’t give up on reform. He needs to tell the rest of us his plans.

Romney promises to repeal “Obamacare” his first day in office, but he also promises to save the most popular parts of the law, such as parents’ insurance coverage for children up to age 26. Romney has been vague about whether he’ll ensure that people with pre-existing conditions are covered under his plan. He will be pressed on how his plan would work, absent the linchpin of the individual mandate, which requires everyone to purchase insurance, spreading the cost.

On immigration, Obama showed the power of the incumbency last week when he announced that his administration would stop deporting young people who were brought to this country illegally as children, if they meet certain conditions. Up to 1.4 million children and adults who are in the country illegally could benefit from the change, according to an analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center. Nearly two-thirds of likely voters support the change, a Bloomberg poll found.

Romney, who took a hard line during the primaries against illegal immigration, is heading for a kinder, more bipartisan stance. The immigration plan he sketched Thursday included more favorable treatment for “the best and brightest” immigrants and a path to citizenship for military veterans. Romney needs to say whether he would repeal Obama’s non-deportation rule.

Raising the stakes on immigration will be the Supreme Court’s decision on Arizona’s strict immigration law. The Obama administration challenged the 2010 law that requires police officers to ask for immigration papers if the officers believe individuals they’ve stopped are illegal immigrants. Other provisions make not carrying immigration papers and unauthorized work crimes.

Although Nov. 6 is nearly five months away, the calendar also prods Romney and Obama to focus on issues. Thirty-two states allow early voting, and the start dates vary. Voting begins in Iowa Sept. 27. That’s fewer than 100 days away.

Iowa is one of the swing states Obama won last time that Romney visited on his “Every Town Counts” bus tour. The Obama administration released a 32-page report touting its help for rural areas, and the Obama campaign promises an unprecedented ground game in the battleground state.

In a close election, analysts say, rural voters in a few swing states could determine who wins the White House, or Hispanic voters could, or African American or gay voters.

One thing does unite voters as we choose the next president, and that’s the need to look past clever slogans and symbols. Policy may not be as easy as pie, but it matters a lot more.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Campaign summer debate: the bacon sundae -- June 14, 2012 column


My fellow Americans, we meet today to note a milestone in American food history.

The wizards who brought us monster sandwiches, pizza crusts stuffed with pasta, and tubs of soda big enough for regattas are out with a new temptation. They’ve married sweet and salty, cream and crunch, fat and fatter. It’s the bacon sundae, brought to you by Burger King as part of its summertime menu.

Most of us were blissfully unaware that ice cream and bacon even knew each other, let alone that they enjoy a close personal relationship and have moved in together.

The BK bacon sundae is soft-serve vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel and chocolate fudge, sprinkled with bacon crumbles, and topped with an insouciant thick strip of hardwood-smoked bacon. It costs 510 calories, 18 grams of fat, 61 grams of sugar and about $2.49 plus tax.

Naturally in this political summer, the dessert is controversial. Its fans say everything tastes better with bacon. Critics say we’re already too fat, and we don’t need help clogging our arteries. Yes it does. Yes we are, and no we don’t.

Can’t we all get along?

The outrage over the bacon sundae – obesity is America’s No. 1 health issue; how could they? – is misplaced. Fast food is a business. The marketplace – that’s all of us -- will decide whether Burger King is smokin’ or flaming out.

Going burger to burger against McDonald’s, BK retired the king from company logos, reportedly to attract women and younger customers. Hmm. This spring, it introduced truffle burgers in Hong Kong. A private equity firm led by Brazilian billionaires took over Burger King in 2010, but the company is about to go public again.

Denny’s offered a bacon maple sundae last year during its Baconalia promotion. Bacon sundaes may not be health foods, but they do generate buzz.

And nobody has to purchase the dessert.

As for sugar content, giant soft drinks pack more sugar wallop than the decadent bacon sundae. A 30-ounce Classic Coke provides 77 grams of sugar and the 40-ounce delivers 102 grams of sugar, according to BK’s nutrition information.
There’s something very American about this particular melting pot of sweet and savory flavors.

Archaeologists say people living in what’s now Turkey domesticated the first pigs 10,000 years ago. Did they also discover bacon? The Chinese claim Emperor Tang (618 to 697 A.D.) invented a version of ice cream. Venetian explorer Marco Polo may have brought it back to Europe in the 13th century, or that may be myth.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both served ice cream and bacon, but never the twain did meet, as far as we know.

“Virginia ladies value themselves on the goodness of their bacon,” Washington wrote the Marquis de Lafayette in June 1786. Really, George?

Several American cities argue over which one invented the sundae. Ithaca, N.Y., says it was first in 1892.

Growing up with bacon and eggs, many Americans have strong views about bacon. On this side of the Atlantic, we insist on crisp strips -- no limp bacon here. Maybe that says something about American drive and determination or maybe it’s just about cooking time.

Any day now, I expect to see President Obama or his Republican challenger Mitt Romney bring the bacon sundae to the campaign trail, rhetorically at least.

What this campaign needs is another Clara Peller, the diminutive octogenarian who charmed the country in 1984 with her whiny question: “Where’s the beef?”

The question -- from Wendy’s TV ads for its hamburgers -- became a catch phrase of that year’s presidential campaign. During the Democratic primaries, Vice President Walter F. Mondale, not particularly known for his wit, told Gary Hart in a debate that his vague promises about new ideas reminded him of the commercial.

“Where’s the beef?” Mondale asked.

In case you’re wondering, I won’t be indulging in any bacon sundaes. When I need a bacon fix, I’ll stick to what can be the world’s best summer sandwich, the BLT on toast. With mustard.

You can have yours with mayonnaise. It’s a free country.

(C) 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Good morning, Vietnam -- June 6, 2012 column


It’s the 50th anniversary of a war most people would rather forget. So, with typical American subtlety and restraint, we’ve plunged into public commemorations that will last 13 years.

Yes, you read that right. For the next 13 years, the federal government will join with local governments, private groups and communities across the country in events aimed at ensuring we remember the Vietnam War.

Congress authorized the 50th anniversary commemoration and President Barack Obama signed a presidential proclamation last month, starting the clock on Memorial Day and ending it on Veterans Day 2025.

That’s a long hello to a tumultuous era. By the time it’s over, the oldest boomers, born in 1946, the once-young pups who vowed not to trust anyone over 30, will be pushing 80.

Half a century after the war started, Americans are haunted by the shoddy treatment some who served in Vietnam received when they came home. It was “a national shame, a disgrace that should never have happened,” Obama said in his Memorial Day speech at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

The president seemed poised to repeat the familiar claim that returning servicemen were spat upon. He didn’t, and we’ll have 13 years to argue about that.

Jerry Lembcke, a sociologist and 1969 Vietnam vet, researched the claims for his 1998 book, “The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam.” Lembcke found not one verifiable instance of spitting and has been trying to convince people ever since.

“Stories of spat-upon Vietnam veterans are bogus,” Lembcke wrote in the Spring 2003 issue of “The Veteran,” published by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. “Born out of accusations made by the Nixon administration, they were enlivened in popular culture (recall Rambo saying he was spat upon by those maggots at the airport) and enhanced in the imaginations of Vietnam-generation men – some veterans, some not.” 

Make no mistake, though, even if returning vets escaped saliva, they weren’t routinely welcomed home by strangers bearing bouquets, hugs and kisses.

Honoring Vietnam veterans is the right thing to do, but how? If we’re serious, we will make sure the vets have solid benefits and the finest of medical care. We shouldn’t just pretend we care with pretty words and parades.

Plus, more than 1,600 American soldiers are still missing in Vietnam. New efforts are underway to find their remains. That’s important work.

Vietnam was wrenching, and the commemoration will force us to confront its ugliness. We lost trust in our leaders and institutions, and it never came back. We’ll hear again about napalm, Agent Orange, Lt. William Calley and the My Lai massacre, and other war crimes and atrocities.

The wall at the Vietnam memorial starts low and rises ever higher until it towers over visitors, a graphic illustration of the escalation of the conflict and its toll. The wall is dated 1959 to 1975, but a name of someone who died in 1957 was added later. Every year a few more names of war-related deaths are chiseled in the black granite.

Critics will say the commemoration is a cover for politicians who haven’t served in the military. This is the first presidential election since 1944 in which neither presidential candidate is a veteran.

Emphasis on Vietnam naturally focuses on the presidential candidates. Like most people 50 and younger, Obama, born in 1961, has few wartime memories. Romney, born in 1947, first supported the war and later changed his mind. A May 1966 photo has surfaced, showing Romney, 19 and neatly dressed, picketing a sit-in against the draft by anti-war protesters.

Two months later, though, he received a draft deferment as a “minister of religion” and kept it until February1969, according to the Associated Press. During most of that time he was a Mormon missionary in France. Afterward, a high lottery number kept him from the draft.

From Hanoi this week came news that Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and his Vietnamese counterpart had exchanged “artifacts” from the war -- letters from an American soldier killed in 1969 and a Vietnamese soldier’s diary.

Artifact is an awfully cold word for someone’s handwritten, heart-felt thoughts.

I hope that commemorative events over the next 13 years remind us that soldiers in any war are young people who love, hope and dream. They fight for all of us. And some never get the chance to grow old.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.