Thursday, June 27, 2013

Act II for voting rights -- June 27, 2013 column

“Voting discrimination still exists; no one doubts that,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. declared in his Supreme Court opinion that nevertheless shredded part of the federal voting rights safety net.
By a 5-4 vote, Roberts and the four other justices nominated by Republican presidents effectively ended nearly 50 years of federal oversight on voting practices in mostly Southern states that had a history of discrimination.
The court said that times have changed and racial progress has made outdated the decades-old formula Congress used to decide which states had to submit their election law changes in advance.  Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito joined Roberts in the majority opinion.
You won’t be surprised that the four justices appointed by Democratic presidents saw the case, Shelby County v. Holder, much differently.
“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in a stinging dissenting opinion, which was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Now what? Until Tuesday, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required the states of Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Alaska to submit changes in their election laws to the federal government. Parts of California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina and South Dakota were also required to do so.
Today, those states and localities no longer have to “beseech” – Roberts’ word -- the government for approval. Several states said they’d move quickly to put in place strict new voter ID laws.
Attorney General Eric Holder says the Justice Department will continue to monitor all states and to file lawsuits when questionable steps are taken. Lawsuits take years. Preclearance is a fairly quick process that puts the burden on jurisdictions to prove at the outset that their new election laws do not discriminate.  
The court challenged Congress to rewrite the law’s Section 4, which contains the formula identifying states needing preclearance. The smart money is on Congress to fail, once again, to do anything.  
If members of Congress can’t pass a farm bill or immigration legislation, and might well fight over whether the evening meal is called dinner or supper, how can they possibly agree on politically explosive standards for which states must get federal scrutiny of their election decisions?  
Yes, but…how can Congress NOT act – if the people demand it? It has happened before.
In August 1963, the March on Washington drew more than 200,000 in peaceful demonstration to the Lincoln Memorial. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.
After the march, King and other leaders went to the White House and talked with President John Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson about the need for bipartisan civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 eventually resulted.  
On the 50th anniversary of the march and Dream speech, the civil rights community is planning five days of events in August in Washington Leaders say this won’t be a nostalgia trip but a call to restart the civil rights movement and to urge Congress to act on voting rights for the 21st century.   
For the record, not everyone who has dealt with the preclearance rules has found them burdensome.
“I have generally found the process straightforward, and given the importance of voting, not onerous,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who served as Richmond’s mayor as well as lieutenant governor and governor in a state that had its share of civil rights issues.
Kaine suggested that until Congress acts, jurisdictions previously covered should continue to submit their election changes for preclearance to the Justice Department “as a sign to their own constituents that they are committed to ensuring equal voting rights.” Nice try.
But then Kaine was once a missionary.

The country is becoming more diverse, but members of Congress actually risk little politically if they fail to respond to racial diversity. The average House Republican district is 75 percent white while the average Democratic district is 51 percent white, according to the Cook Political Report. 

So here we are: Everybody agrees voting discrimination is still with us. Democrats and Republicans always say voting isn't a partisan issue. Prove it. Work together on new rules for preclearance and ensure that everybody eligible to vote can do so.

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Yes, 2016 is closer than you think -- June 20, 2013 column


In his first summer as a lame duck president, Barack Obama has something in common with George W. Bush.

Obama’s job approval rating is only slightly higher than Bush’s 46 percent at this point in his presidency, June 2005. Obama’s popularity has been shaken by reports of the National Security Agency’s phone call tracking, which began in Bush’s term, and of IRS’s targeting tea party groups for special scrutiny, a scandal the Obama administration owns.   

Iowa’s presidential caucuses are still 30 months away, but potential candidates and party operatives are already moving to the next presidential contest. Eight years ago, Democrats were aching to regain the White House; now it’s the Republicans’ turn.

Among possible GOP candidates, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Mitt Romney’s running mate last year, rates highest among Republican voters, while Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., and Sen. Mark Rubio, R-Fla., get higher marks from the general public, Gallup reports. Christie has had weight-loss surgery – for his physical, not his political, health, he insists.  

Democrats are talking enthusiastically about Hillary Clinton as the first woman president, just as they did eight years ago. Therein lies a cautionary tale.

Back in Summer 2005, Clinton was seen as formidable, if not yet inevitable. When Hillary Clinton appeared with Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia, Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, and Gov. Tom Vilsack of Iowa at a meeting of the Democratic Leadership Council, she stole the show. The DLC was a centrist group that had boosted Bill Clinton’s prospects for the White House, and Hillary Clinton was trying to squeeze her liberal foot into a moderate shoe.

Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois, had spoken eloquently at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, but Clinton and her fans thought him too inexperienced to win just four years later. Voters had other opinions.   

The country is even more polarized these days. Tea partiers push Republicans to the right, and Democrats drift left. The DLC closed its doors in 2011.

This time around, Vice President Joe Biden has Senate as well as one-heartbeat-away experience to be president. Clinton and her fans should recognize his potential vote-getting power.  

At the same time, the historical significance of the first woman president is huge. Clinton has distinguished herself as a loyal member of the Obama team and as the nation’s top diplomat. Republicans treat her like a frontrunner by attempting to tarnish her sterling reputation with questions about her role in the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which cost four American lives.

Clinton is 65 but she’s hardly ready to retire. Her next memoir is due out next June, and like her husband, she’s on the talk circuit.

When she spoke to the Economic Club of Grand Rapids, Mich., last Monday night, about 50 supporters outside waved “I’m Ready for Hillary” signs and chanted “Hill-a-ry, 20-16. Hill-a-ry, 20-16.” 

The Grand Rapids Press also reported that Clinton offered five rules for life in her speech, including:  “You can’t win if you don’t show up.” She was referring to the need to demonstrate to countries large and small that the United States values their friendship. But of course her remark added to the buzz about whether she will show up in 2016. Clinton hasn’t announced her plans, but almost everyone assumes she’s in.

The Ready for Hillary super PAC is hard at work building a grassroots draft movement. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., became the first member of Congress to jump on the Hillary bandwagon. McCaskill supported Obama early on for 2008. No fan of Bill Clinton, she said in 2006 she wouldn’t want him near her daughter. That was then.

Hillary Clinton could follow her husband’s lead and make money. Bill Clinton brought home $17 million in speaking fees from mid-January 2012 to mid-January 2013. He made 73 speeches at an average rate of $195,000 per speech, a CNN analysis of financial reports found. The former president has made a whopping $106 million in speaking fees since he left the White House.

Hillary Clinton has a new Twitter account. Her profile: “wife, mom, lawyer, women & kids advocate, FLOAR, FLOTUS, US Senator, SecState, author, dog owner, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, glass ceiling cracker, TBD…” Humor is good.

Practically overnight, she attracted more than half a million followers, with more every minute.  

But Iowa is a long way off. Sometimes you don’t see trouble coming.     

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 14, 2013

RX for states: Expand Medicaid -- June 13, 2013 column


“Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing – after they have exhausted all other possibilities,” Winston Churchill supposedly said.

Whether the remark reflected Churchill’s or someone else’s wit, we again are seeing Americans struggle over the right thing. This time the right thing is for every state to expand Medicaid, the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor.  

Medicaid currently provides health care to about 59 million low-income people – mostly young children and their parents and pregnant women. It pays for long-term care for seniors in nursing homes and people with disabilities. Some states, like Massachusetts, expanded Medicaid coverage on their own.

In March 2010, President Barack Obama signed the Affordable Care Act – a.k.a. Obamacare – which aims to bring affordable health care to most Americans no matter where they live.

The law is making significant changes. Next year, insurance companies can no longer discriminate against people with pre-existing health conditions, and almost every American will have to have health insurance or pay a tax penalty. The law also required every state to expand Medicaid to cover people with incomes up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level, about $26,000 for a family of three in 2013. The Congressional Budget Office said the Medicaid expansion would provide 16 million Americans with reliable health care.   

Republican state officials challenged the law in the courts. Last June, the Supreme Court upheld the law but said expanding Medicaid was a state option. Today 22 states and the District of Columbia are moving forward with the Medicaid expansion, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. These include California, Minnesota, New Jersey and New York.

About 20 states have rejected the expansion – at least for now. Among them are Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia. Eight other states around the country are still fighting it out.

In five Deep South states that have opted out – Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and South Carolina – 62 percent of residents support the Medicaid expansion, a poll in March and April by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found. The center is a public policy research group that focuses on African Americans.

Virginians were almost evenly split in March with 45 percent favoring expansion and 43 percent opposed, a Quinnipiac University poll reported.    

States that have rejected the expansion have some of the nation’s worst health records. America’s Health Rankings, an annual report by United Health Foundation, ranked Mississippi and Louisiana 49th,  -- the least healthy states. Alabama is 45th and Virginia 21st.

The states are forgoing “free” money. The federal government will foot 100 percent of Medicaid expansion costs from 2014 to 2016. Repayment will drop  to 90 percent in 2020 and level off after that. That’s a much better match than states currently have for Medicaid. The federal share ranges from 50 percent to 83 percent, with poorer states getting higher amounts per capita.   

Critics of expansion say they worry about unspecified costs down the road, and yet people without health insurance get health care every day in more costly hospital emergency rooms.    

A new Rand study of the first 14 states whose governors declared they would not expand Medicaid, including Alabama, found those states together would spend $1 billion more on uncompensated health care in 2016 than if they expanded Medicaid. The 14 states would give up $8.4 billion annually in federal payments, Rand said.

An analysis of state health data by the Los Angeles Times indicates that the states could use the help. Colon cancer deaths in states that oppose the Medicaid expansion are, on average, 16 percent higher than in states that support expansion, and deaths from breast cancer are 8 percent higher on average in states that oppose the expansion.

“Medicaid by itself may not close those gaps, which also reflect income and education disparities,” the paper reported, noting that conservatives argue that poor people would be helped more by alternative strategies that encourage people to take responsibility for their own health care.

States that don’t expand Medicaid still face other higher costs. Nationwide, only about two-thirds of people eligible have signed up for Medicaid, and the new health law includes a major outreach effort.

The fight over Medicaid is far from over. There’s no deadline for expansion, and supporters say they’ll be back in statehouses for the next legislative session. As they say in baseball, there’s always next year.

For now, though, it appears many states are determined to ignore the proverb and be “penny wise and pound foolish.”   

©2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Friday, June 7, 2013

How can GOP win young voters? June 6, 2013 column


After back-to-back presidential defeats, the Republican Party is obsessed with reinventing itself. Or, more accurately, it’s obsessed with talking about reinventing itself.

This is like someone who, having gained 25 pounds, debates the virtues of various diets while lying on the couch, eating junk food. It’s a first step, but a tiny one.
Poor Bob Dole had the temerity to say that this isn’t his Republican party. Nearly 90, the former senator and Republican presidential nominee said last month that he doubted whether he, Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan could even be nominated for president by the current party.

“I think they ought to put a sign on the (Republican National) Committee doors that says ‘Closed for Repairs,’” and spend the next six months coming up with a positive agenda, Dole said on Fox News Sunday.

Conservatives pounced, calling Dole old, irrelevant and worse. Eventually, though, status-quo Republicans may be forced to hear the wake-up calls. Yes, plural.
 In March, a Republican task force commissioned by Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus warned in its “Growth and Opportunity Project” report that the party has marginalized itself and risks future presidential losses unless it makes changes.  Among the problems is age. 

“Young people are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the party represents…When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us,” the report said.

Reagan may be a beloved GOP icon, but no one under the age of 51 was old enough to vote for him when he first ran for president, the report noted, adding, “Our party knows how to appeal to older voters, but we have lost our way with younger ones.” 

It’s even worse than that.

When voters under 30 were asked what words they associate with “Republican Party,” they responded: closed-minded, racist, rigid, old-fashioned.

And the Democratic Party? Soft, said some, but most picked tolerant, diverse and open-minded.

These are findings from a new report by the College Republican National Committee. The committee analyzed voter polls and conducted its own focus groups and survey of voters under 30 for “Grand Old Party for a Brand New Generation.” The report calls on Republicans to turn the GOP brand around, update their tech presence and rethink their policies.

Young people have been voting Democratic for president since 1992, so long that it may seem the natural order. President Barack Obama won 5 million more votes of people under 30 than Mitt Romney did last year, and that was enough to ensure Obama’s victory, despite Romney’s winning 2 million more votes of people over 30.
It wasn’t always this way. In 1972, the first presidential election when 18-year-olds could vote, 52 percent of voters under 30 cast ballots for Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan won 59 percent of young voters in 1984, and George W. Bush lost young voters by just 2 points in 2000 – while losing seniors 65 and more than 4 points.

Democrats should not enjoy the Republicans’ dilemma too much.  It’s not that young people love Democrats, the college Republicans report. It’s that young people hate Republicans more.

At the start of their survey, the College Republicans’ researchers asked young voters to complete two non-political sentences: “I hope people see me as…” And “I hope people never see me as…” They were given a long list of attributes.This was before any mention of politics, and the idea was to get a sense of what the young people valued. 

Interestingly, the most common answer to “I hope people see me as…” was intelligent, followed by caring and hardworking. Way down the list were creative, unique, adventurous and cool.

And “I hope people never see me as…” stupid. Lazy and incompetent were close behind.  Farther down were closed-minded, negative and unhelpful.  

“For the GOP, being thought of as closed-minded is hardly a good thing. But if the GOP is thought of as the “stupid party,” it may as well be the kiss of death,” the report said.

Cue the comments last year by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who was right on target when he said Republicans have to stop being “the stupid party.”

But how? What can Republicans do to win back the youth vote in presidential elections? I’d love to hear your ideas.

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.