Thursday, July 25, 2013

Once more, it's `Message: I care'


In 1992, when a beleaguered President George H.W. Bush blurted out “Message: I care” at a campaign stop in New Hampshire, he accomplished the exact opposite of what he intended. 

Voters believed that Bush was even more out of touch with the economic problems of everyday people than they’d thought.

We’re about to see whether President Barack Obama’s appeal for “a better bargain for the middle class” works better than the elder Bush’s awkward “I care.”

Washington insider Bush lost his re-election bid against outsider Bill “I feel your pain” Clinton in large part because the Arkansas governor could credibly argue that he’d change Washington.  

In 2008, Obama used his fresh face as a Washington neophyte to his advantage. Today, though, Obama is undeniably an insider, having been elected president twice. And yet he’s fighting for his agenda and his place in history by distancing himself from the capital.   

“Too often Washington has made things worse,” Obama said Wednesday at Knox College in Illinois. He repeated the thought in later speeches.

Obama is blaming Republicans for thwarting his vision, and, yes, he has faced a wall of partisan opposition since Day One.  But the fact is, Obama can’t even count on his Democratic friends in the Senate for support. 
Plus, he is the chief executive, and as the sign in Truman’s Oval Office read, “The buck stops here.”  

When Obama dismisses troubling revelations in his Executive Branch – bias at the IRS, cover-ups in the State Department and widespread snooping at the National Security Agency – as “phony scandals,” he fails to instill confidence that he will do whatever it takes to clean up the mess.     

Reactions to Obama’s new campaign to prove he cares about the middle class were predictably political.

“It’s a hollow shell; it’s an Easter egg with no candy in it,” opined House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as if House Republicans’ voting about 40 times to repeal the health care law known as Obamacare was a solid-chocolate bunny.

Obama is largely recycling his proposals that have stalled in gridlocked Washington. He apparently thinks he can mobilize his grassroots base over the next eight weeks to pressure the GOP to come his way.  But Obama is not in a position of strength.  

His job approval rating is down to 45 percent in the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll.  The only bright spot for Obama is that people hold Congress in even lower regard than they do him. 

Only 12 percent of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing, and just 32 percent say their own member of Congress deserves to keep the job. More than half say it’s “time to give a new person a chance,” the poll found. That’s the weakest support for Congress in nearly 20 years.

You’d think these numbers would chasten lawmakers, but not Congress. Members are rewarding their poor performance with a five-week vacation. Obama also has a vacation planned -- Aug. 10 to 18 in tony Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts. 

In September, Republicans threaten to play high-stakes roulette with a government shutdown. Dozens of conservative Republicans are demanding that money to implement and enforce the health law be struck – or they’ll refuse to keep the government open.  

That won’t help Americans sour mood.  Only 29 percent think the country is on the right track – a 19-month low.

Obama’s place in history depends on his keeping his signature health care law alive now and in the future. That means keeping a Democratic majority in the Senate after 2014. Some analysts say it’s possible that the Senate’s fragile Democratic majority could crumble in the next election. In the House, incumbents tend to have a lock on re-election, so the GOP is likely to maintain its control.
So, Obama hit the road for one last campaign.  Critics complain that he shouldn’t be in campaign mode, but had he stayed in town, they’d criticize him for failing to lead. It’s hard for a Washington insider to win -- even when he says he cares.

©2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Readers advise GOP: Change now -- July 18, 2013 column


Last month, I asked readers how the GOP could freshen its appeal to young voters and avoid another presidential election drubbing. Today we’ll hear their advice.
“Change. Develop and implement policies that benefit young voters. Reduce student loan costs and or the need for student loans,” wrote David Browning of North Chesterfield, Va., in a letter to the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Browning had other good ideas but let’s stop at student loans. Congress has been stymied trying to roll back interest rate hikes on new Stafford student loans, which doubled this month to 6.8 percent. This week, there were signs of progress. Senators of both parties agreed Wednesday on a deal to lower rates temporarily, and the White House indicated President Obama would go along. Look for action before the August recess.
A reader named Robert who described himself as an “old time, left out Republican” emailed me to say that Republicans have “forgotten their roots: Lincoln. Roosevelt. Eisenhower, and the good side of Nixon…the Republicans need to be born again.”

He advised:  “Tune out the radio talking heads and turn off Fox TV. Young voters are interested in jobs, education and the environment. They believe in science. They have gone to school with other races and with immigrants. They know gays and lesbians…Young people cannot relate to the racist, homophobic, anti-immigrant attitude of many of the GOP leaders.”

There’s a lot to think about in that one paragraph, but immigration tops the list for a successful Republican future.

The Republican National Committee’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” report released earlier this year said Republicans must “embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform” if they’re to have any hope of attracting minority voters. Young voters also overwhelmingly favor changes in immigration policy.

Among 18- to 29-year-old voters, 68 percent say illegal immigrants should be given a chance for legal status and only 28 percent favor deportation, the Pew Research Center reported after analyzing exit polls from the 2012 election.

Voters under 30 are the most ethnically and racially diverse of any age group, says Pew. The share of  young voters who are white has declined 16 percent since 2000. Back then, 74 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 identified themselves as white. By 2012, whites were 58 percent of the voters under 30. 
Eighteen percent of voters under 30 said they were Hispanic, 17 percent African American and 7 percent mixed race.
So, while some analysts say the GOP hasn’t tapped out on white voters and could still win elections by attracting more whites, a single-race strategy is more than a bad idea. It’s also likely a short-term one.   

Ethnic diversity is as American as tacos, but House Republicans have stalled efforts to pass immigration reform -- comprehensive or piecemeal. Supporters of reform are talking about a major push to sway House members during the August recess, Aug. 5 to Sept. 9. If they’re successful, watch for votes in September.    

What besides a change in policy might Republicans do to attract young voters? A reader named Mary proposed a marketing campaign to rebrand the party: train candidates in the art of public speaking and language, divide the “market” into special interest groups and appeal to each group with buzz words, and build relationships with public figures.

That sounds promising, except that the rising young stars in the GOP – Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, 43; Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida, both 42, and Rand Paul, 50 – appeal to right-wing believers, not to a new target audience.   

Freshman Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., 36, has wowed conservatives by condemning a path to citizenship and any compromise on immigration. Cotton has “the poise of Bill Clinton but the politics of Rush Limbaugh,” Robert Costa wrote in National Review Online.

Democrats like to say the new breed of Republicans has young faces and old ideas. The GOP may need to be born again politically but change will be a tough sell to the Republican base, especially if change smells like retreat. Here’s one more reader’s advice:  

Republicans should simply “cite facts, logic and history” to young voters, the man wrote, adding, “And for God’s sake don’t apologize – for ANYTHING!”

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Not like us --why distrust of D.C. causes bipartisan pain -- July 11, 2013


What’s the difference between Washington and everywhere else? Here’s a quick take from a corporate executive who knows from experience.   

“Growing up in New Hampshire and being a CEO, I always felt like what I thought, what I said and what I did had to be the same thing,” says David M. Cote, chairman and chief executive of Honeywell International. 

“In government, that’s three separate decisions.”

In Washington, “what they say isn’t necessarily what they think, and what they do isn’t necessarily what they say or think,” says Cote, who noted that Washington operates at a level of “complexity” beyond any he has dealt with in the business world. He sat for an interview last month at a Wall Street Journal breakfast.

I would argue that not doing what one says is duplicity, not complexity, but let’s not quibble. Cote hit on a truth so obvious it made me want to slap my forehead. He learned as a member of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles fiscal responsibility commission how to translate Washington-speak and understand how politicians triangulate their thoughts, words and deeds.

Cote, the lifelong Republican, said he once walked out of a meeting with a pol who had said, “I’m with you, Dave.” Cote turned to his staff guy and said, “What a great meeting!”  

“He’s not with us,” his guy replied and explained why what the pol said wasn’t really what he meant. Cote had a lot to learn.

Some corporate suits named to presidential commissions just make one appearance or so – they’re busy, after all, with their day jobs. But Cote arranged his schedule so he could show up every time the commission met, an accomplishment that only he, Simpson and Bowles managed. He learned not to take what pols say at face value – certainly not until there’s a deal they can start talking about. Why, he says, would a savvy pol go out on a limb and upset constituents prematurely?

When the Simpson-Bowles commission considered raising the age of eligibility for Social Security by one year 75 years in the future, left-leaning groups rose in mighty opposition, ludicrously claiming that the commission was robbing the old. Eventually, Congress must deal with the long-term future of boomer-burdened Social Security and Medicare. The longer we wait, the more likely we hurt current beneficiaries.   

Even though Congress should deal with the future of Medicare and Medicaid now, the more likely scenario is that Congress will lurch forward, crisis to crisis, Cote says.

There are “some really smart, well-meaning people” in Washington, Cote says, and, yes, there are also dolts. “I’ve had times when I’ve looked at someone and said, ‘You can’t possibly believe what you just said.’”Haven’t we all?

Cote’s trenchant remarks help explain why it’s so hard for voters to trust anyone in Washington. President Barack Obama shocked many on his side when he delayed parts of the Affordable Care Act, and that was merely the latest in a series of disappointments for liberal supporters.

House Majority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., promises that the House will take up a package of bills before the end of the month aimed at addressing the trust deficit in Washington. Among these is a bizarre  measure allowing people to record their conversations with some federal officials – although not with members of Congress.

If the House and Senate can’t agree on substantive legislation, like the Farm Bill and how to avoid doubling the interest rates on new student loans, political grandstanding hardly will shore up the people’s trust.

If Dave Cote is right, the problem for the next presidential candidate -- Republican and Democratic –is deeper than something a jazzy PR campaign can fix. Voters need to believe we can rely on what politicians say as a guide to what they’ll do. That’s not too much to ask. Anything less adds to the already significant distrust of Washington and that will keep voters home on Election Day.

 © 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Summer's almost over -- think local -- July 3, 2013 column


I have it on good authority that the economy is improving. Auto sales are the best they’ve been in five years. House sales over the last year have jumped by double digits. And the entire American population is on vacation.

OK, I made up that last one, but, seriously, doesn’t it feel like August in France?

My neighbors are staying cool on the Maine coast, meeting Mickey at Disney World and nibbling croissants in Paris. Facebook friends post endless pictures of their road trips out west, mountain vistas,  celebrity-sightings in London and bridges in Rome.
I’m home, and I’m OK with that. Really.
I’m glad my friends are having fun, and their absence makes driving on the Beltway if not fonder, at least more bearable.
I too made summer plans: I’d garden and lose myself in “War and Peace,” finally. I researched translations in May but haven’t actually gotten the book. To whet my whistle, I ordered the 1956 movie starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda. Get this: It’s 3 ½ hours long. People’s attention spans must have been longer back then. I’ll just return it and reorder when the nights are long.

Gardening has been more pain than pleasure because a low pressure system has held the East Coast in its grasp for weeks, breeding heat, humidity, monsoon rains, ginormous mushrooms and a bumper crop of weeds. The weather is demoralizing, and don’t get me started on Congress, the president and the Supreme Court.

To escape the full monty of Washington malaise, a friend and I dodged raindrops Sunday and got in the car with a map of Virginia’s scenic byways. We drove into the summer afternoon, destination unknown.

Less than 40 minutes from the nation’s dysfunctional capital, the skies lightened and we found winding roads, green rolling hills, stone walls, rail fences, canopies of trees, horses, black angus cattle and more historic markers than you could want.
While others fought the crowds at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, we drove the nearly deserted Snickersville Turnpike, State Route 734, a road that hasn’t changed much since George Washington traveled it as a lad. We stopped atop a quiet hill at a monument to the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry that suffered grievous losses on June 17, 1863, in the Battle of Aldie, a fight on the armies’ march to Gettysburg.

Visitors today see a drowsy field and barn and a stone wall. But behind that wall, Confederate sharpshooters knelt and fired on an approaching Union cavalry column. Massachusetts lost 198 of 294 men, and the names of the fallen are inscribed on the granite marker, erected in 1891 by the First Massachusetts Cavalry Association.

It’s easy to overlook the history in your own backyard, but close to home you can change your perspective without worrying about the exchange rate. A road taken can lead to learning new things.

I looked up the Battle of Aldie later and found this sad description of the battle’s toll. Confederate Col. Thomas Munford wrote, “I do not hesitate to say that I have never seen as many Yankees killed at the same space of ground in any fight I have ever seen, or on any battlefield in Virginia that I have been over.”

Back on the road, we stopped in the city of Winchester, with its magnificent library. We wandered the newly renovated Old Town pedestrian mall, where kids cooled off in a splash pad, a young man played guitar and sang Beatles tunes, his guitar case open for contributions, and in true American fashion diners enjoyed sushi, Thai and Mexican food.  

We followed our noses to a barbecue joint – the aroma from the two BBQ smokers out front was irresistible -- and washed down smoked pork with sweet tea at a communal table.   

At the city’s visitor center, I mentioned our delicious lunch to one of the friendly women behind the counter.

“Did you have dessert?” she asked.  We had not. She shook her head.

“The chocolate cake,” she said with a sigh, “is the best I’ve ever had out.”  

Summer may be running away, but it’s not gone yet. We can go back. That’s the virtue of staying close to home.

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.