Thursday, April 25, 2013

A boomlet of Bush popularity -- April 25, 2013 column


Americans are notoriously fickle. Three separate times while he was president, George W. Bush’s approval rating plummeted to 25 percent. This, of course, was the same president whose approval rating soared to 90 percent after the 9/11 attacks.

As Bush’s helicopter lifted off the U.S. Capitol grounds for his return to Texas after Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in January 2009, the jubilant crowd sang-sneered:  “Nah, nah, nah, nah, hey, hey, goodbye!” At that point, only about one in three Americans approved of his performance as president.

Bush claims he never worries about polls or the judgment of history. When journalist Bob Woodward asked him in 2003 how history would judge the Iraq war, Bush declined to take the bait. “History. We don’t know. We’ll all be dead,” he said.

As they often do with polarizing politicians, people have mellowed toward Bush. Nearly half of adults now approve of the way he handled his job as president. While about three in four Democrats still disapprove, that’s down from the nine in 10 Democrats who disapproved in 2008 of the way he did his job.

Bush’s approval rating overall equals Obama’s, the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll reported Tuesday.  Such are the power of silence and absence.
In our ego-driven world, the idea of someone stepping off the national stage more or less voluntarily has definite appeal. Even his critics admired the way Bush picked up his paint brushes and went about his new life in Dallas, refusing to be drawn into the political fray.

He didn’t respond when Barack Obama and other Democrats blamed him for the mess he left. He skipped the 2008 Republican National Convention to stay in Washington after Hurricane Gustav, showing he did learn something from the disastrously slow response to Katrina. He declined an invitation to join Obama at Ground Zero after Osama bin Laden was killed in 2011. Bush also stayed away from the Republican National Convention last year.

The 43rd president, in interviews surrounding the dedication Thursday of his presidential library, began to give his side of his eight White House years. For example, he vigorously defended the Medicare prescription drug benefit he expanded, despite Republican criticism that it was too big and costly.

“We were modernizing an antiquated system” already in place, he told the Dallas Morning News.

He regrets being unable to get an immigration bill through Congress, and he called for a “benevolent spirit” in the debate.

His brand of “compassionate conservatism” may yet get a second look from his party. After losing the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, the Republican National Committee finally conceded that the perception that the GOP doesn’t care hurts Republican candidates. Imagine that. 

It’s worth remembering how Bush cast his compassionate conservatism. “Big government is not the answer. But the alternative to bureaucracy is not indifference,” he said in 2000. “We will give low-income Americans tax credits to buy the private health insurance they need and deserve,” he said.

Democrats typically denounced Bush’s compassion as phony, and conservatives saw his conservatism as squishy. Interestingly, tax credits are what the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare – will give low-income people in January to buy health insurance through exchanges.
House Republicans have voted repeatedly to repeal Obamacare. This week House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., tried a different approach. The felicitously titled “Helping Sick Americans Now Act” would redirect $300 million from the health law’s Prevention and Public Health Fund to a temporary health insurance fund for people with pre-existing medical conditions.
The idea was to show that while they hate Obamacare, Republicans do care about the sick. Not so fast.

Democrats opposed the measure for draining the public health fund, and the White House threatened a veto. But it was the ire of GOP conservatives that forced Cantor to pull the bill before a floor vote. Tea party Republicans and other conservatives refused to vote for anything short of repealing Obamacare.

Cantor says he isn’t giving up. Can he win the compassion argument among Republicans that Bush could not? Stay tuned.
 © 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Gabby Giffords shines in gun control fight -- April 18, 2013 column


The National Rifle Association won round one, but don’t count gun control advocates out just yet. Not when Gabby Giffords is in the ring.   

She no longer has a vote in Congress, but if this courageous fighter has anything to do with it, reason will prevail. Eventually.

In all that was said and written in outrage after the Senate defeated several gun control measures Wednesday, the words of the former Arizona congresswoman were the most honest and inspirational. 
To recap, only 54 senators voted for a bipartisan compromise that would have required background checks at gun shows and for online purchases – not the 60 needed to pass the measure. 

No matter that national polls show 85 to 92 percent of Americans support expanding background checks. Senators are elected from individual states, not nationwide, and state politics trumps national sentiment. Even fewer senators voted for amendments to prohibit high-capacity magazines and to reinstate a ban on certain military-style rifles.

Gabrielle Giffords is still recovering from serious injuries after being shot in January 2011 outside a supermarket in Tucson while meeting with constituents. Last January, she testified haltingly before the Senate Judiciary Committee: “You must act.” The Senate didn’t.

President Obama had made preventing gun violence a key issue after the Newtown massacre, but he could not deliver the 60 votes needed to move gun control forward. The NRA insisted, wrongly, that the bill would criminalize private transfers of firearms between family members or friends. Senators fell in line.
 “Speaking is physically difficult for me. But my feelings are clear: I’m furious,” Giffords wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times on Thursday. 
“Some of the senators who voted against the background-check amendments have met with grieving parents whose children were murdered at Sandy Hook, in Newtown. Some of the senators who voted no looked into my eyes as I talked about my experience being shot in the head at point-blank range in suburban Tucson two years ago, and expressed sympathy for the 18 other people shot besides me, six of whom died,” she wrote.

“These senators have heard from their constituents – who polls show overwhelmingly favored expanding background checks. And still these senators decided to do nothing. Shame on them.”

There are glimmers of hope. The NRA is being challenged by several gun control advocates, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly started Americans for Responsible Solutions, an advocacy group with a separate political action committee to encourage elected officials to prevent gun violence and protect responsible gun owners.

Yes, they are gun owners, and even after what happened to her, Kelly and Giffords go target shooting. Kelly, a former Navy captain and astronaut who likely has a political career, did a video for the Americans for Responsible Solutions site that shows how easy it is to get a background check. He takes a pocket camera to a local gun shop, buys a .45 – the background check takes all of 5 minutes, 36 seconds -- and brings the gun home to show Giffords.
Giffords has harnessed her anger. In her Times piece, she writes: “I am asking every reasonable American to help me tell the truth about the cowardice these senators demonstrated. I am asking for mothers to stop these lawmakers in the grocery store and tell them: You’ve lost my vote.

“I am asking activists to unsubscribe from these senators’ e-mail lists and to stop giving them money. I am asking citizens to go to their offices and say: You’ve disappointed me, and there will be consequences.” 

Gun control legislation appears frozen for the foreseeable future, so the consequences may not be apparent until the 2014 election. Power can shift, however. Not that long ago, the NRA supported background checks as “reasonable.”

 “We think it’s reasonable to provide mandatory, instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show. No loopholes anywhere for anyone,” Wayne LaPierre of the NRA told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime a month after the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999. Twelve students and one teacher were murdered in that attack. A background check measure failed in the Senate that year anyway.

Gun control advocates know it will take time. Fortunately, Giffords and Kelly say they are in it for the long haul. Reason will rule. Eventually.  

©2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Retire the penny, please -- April 11, 2013 column


Washington is obsessed with trillions, but it’s the lowly penny that’s weighing us down.

President Barack Obama on Wednesday sent Congress a budget plan to spend almost $3.8 trillion in the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. Can anyone fathom one trillion, let alone nearly four? How about a measly billion?

Pennies we get. Not from heaven, but hand to hand. They are heavy in our pockets and wallets. Pennies clutter our dresser tops. Pennies fill old coffee cans and nest between sofa cushions. Pennies are a burden – small and needless.

It costs twice as much to produce a penny as it’s worth. In fiscal year 2012, pennies cost taxpayers $58 million. That’s hardly big bucks as far as federal spending goes, but why are we doing this?

Nearly everyone agrees the penny has outlived its usefulness. A penny buys nothing, not even penny candy. Many times I’ve heard the dramatic sighs of those behind me when I’ve dug deep to find the right change. Pennies aren’t even good for checking tire tread anymore. Better to use a quarter for today’s tires, retailers say.

The president says the penny is an apt symbol of what ails Washington. He was asked in a Google+ hangout “fireside chat” in February why we don’t stop minting pennies – as Australia, Canada and New Zealand have done.

“Any time we’re spending more money on something that people don’t actually use – that’s an example of something we should probably change,” he replied.

“One of the things you see chronically in government: It’s very hard to get rid of things that don’t work, so we can invest in the things that do. So the penny becomes a good metaphor for a lot of the problems that we’ve got,” he added.

I love a metaphor as much as the next English major, but why prolong our penny foolishness? Obama could have used his budget to declare our independence from the tyranny of pennies.

Instead, on page 144, the budget calls for the U.S. Mint to “change the composition of coins to more cost-effective materials, given that the current cost of making the penny is 2 cents and the cost of making the nickel is 11 cents.”

That’s right. To, um, coin a phrase, the 5-cent piece is nickeling us. We spent $51.2 million on nickels last year.

As for changing the content of coins, we’ve already adulterated the penny from all copper to 2.5 percent copper. It’s 97.5 percent zinc.

Obama recognizes that people are emotionally attached to pennies. They remember their childhood piggybanks and cashing in pennies for a dollar or two, he said.

Nostalgia didn’t stop the Royal Canadian Mint from ceasing production and distribution of pennies in February. Customers can still use the Canadian penny. The government’s Rounding Guidelines suggest that businesses round cash transactions to the nearest nickel. Credit, debit and check purchases are still in penny increments.

In 1857, the United States did kill a penny – a half penny, to be precise. It was the first coin the nation ever authorized and production started in 1793. People surely were sentimentally attached to it. It was worth what a dime is now, far more than the lowly penny is today.

For decades, smart people have said it’s time to retire the penny. My late friend and colleague Charley McDowell, beloved Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist, wrote in 1990:

“I, for one, am willing to do away with pennies even if merchants ease the prices only up, not down, to the nearest nickel. The percentage of general price increase…will not be great. Anyway, relief from pennies would be worth it.”

I wondered what Charley would have said about the couple in Chicago who tiled their bedroom in pennies recently, saying it was cheaper than using regular tile. As for me, I lugged 47 wrapped rolls of pennies to the bank.

The young teller was gracious, but his friend at the next window wore the smirk of a boy who can’t believe his luck when the teacher skips him and asks the next kid to solve the equation.

My teller counted and recounted the rolls. Pennies steal time and energy, even wrapped. He asked how I wanted my loot. I did not say I wanted nickels.

©2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Skimping on brain food -- April 5, 2013 column


President Barack Obama says “the next great American project” will be mapping human brain activity.

The budget he will send Congress Wednesday calls for $110 million for his brain initiative in fiscal 2014, which begins Oct. 1.

Even Newt Gingrich and Eric Cantor support brain research. Former Republican House Speaker Gingrich said Obama “deserved credit for taking an important step in the right direction.”  And House Majority Leader Cantor said in a statement it’s “exactly the type of research we should be funding…it’s great science.”

Before we go all gooey about gridlock thawing in Washington, a new space race or our 21st Century Camelot, let’s take a deep breath. The president proposes, Congress disposes. And $110 million -- bold?

Don’t get me wrong. You’d have to be living in a cave not to support the effort to unlock the mysteries of the brain. We need this research, and we need it now. But it’s hardly a done deal. There’s plenty of time for Republican mischief making. And about that federal effort of $110 million a year – that doesn’t say bold or audacious.  It says modest. Piddling.

I get the rationale for starting small. Maybe it’s the best the president can hope for in the Honey- I-Shrank-Uncle-Sam era. But in modern America, $110 million is small potatoes.

It’s Justin Bieber’s net worth. He’s 19.

It’s the listing price of a penthouse apartment in New York City last year. OK, the apartment was near Carnegie Hall, but still.

It’s even just three-tenths of 1 percent of the National Institutes of Health’s annual budget, according to Francis Collins, the director.  

He said in a live chat via Twitter that NIH is in a “pickle” after budget cuts over 10 years that lopped 20 percent of purchasing power for research. Sequestration is draining $1.5 billion from NIH this year, he said.

So don’t let cold-eyed budget hawks tell you $110 million is a large sum. The Human Genome Project got about $300 million a year from Uncle Sam. Total federal investment was $3.8 billion. The project to map the human genome took 13 years.

Obama likes to tell audiences that every dollar spent on the genome project generated $140 in economic output.  Not bad.

Republican Cantor suggested “reprioritizing the $250 million we currently spend on political and social science research” for the brain initiative. It almost sounded as if Cantor was doubling the president’s bid on brain research. Wouldn’t that be fun? More likely, Cantor was trying to show he’s for the brain, conservatively speaking.

Obama envisions his initiative as “giving scientists the tools they need to get a dynamic picture of the brain in action and better understand how we think and how we learn and how we remember. And that knowledge could be – will be – transformative.”

After a decade of war, no politician will, or should, ever say we’re doing all we can to help our wounded warriors with traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder. No one can tell families struggling to help loved ones that we should wait to look for ways to treat, cure or even prevent Alzheimer’s, autism, epilepsy, Parkinson’s and strokes.

And yet, such practical applications of the BRAIN project -- Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies – are far off. Obama didn’t mention a timeline or even a definite goal.

Three federal agencies will contribute money to the research in the year that begins Oct. 1: National Institutes of Health, $40 million;   Defense Advanced Research Projects, $50 million; and the National Science Foundation, $20 million.

Some say this isn’t the right time begin a new project because of budget woes, but Collins says research has progressed to the point where putting it on hold is wrong.

The federal government will work with four foundations on brain research. The Allen Institute for Brain Science has agreed to spend $60 million annually on projects related to the initiative; Howard Hughes Medical Institute, $30 million annually; the Kavli Foundation, $4 million a year over 10 years; and  Salk Institute for Biological Studies, $28 million.

It’s a good start, but it’s not enough.

“I wish we could go faster,” Collins said on the live Twitter chat. “Maybe we’ll be able to ramp it up.”

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.