Thursday, September 26, 2013

Is partisan gridlock race-based?


Fall is the season of books and provocative ideas, and author Taylor Branch has no shortage of either.  

The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian hopes to keep educators interested in teaching about the civil rights era with the publication of “The King Years,” a short version of his much-acclaimed trilogy on the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

Last Saturday, he challenged his audience under a big tent at the National Book Festival in Washington with an idea he said is both dangerous and delicate. He’d sprung it last month on Gwen Ifill when she interviewed him for the PBS NewsHour. Intrigued, Ifill gingerly broached the idea when she and Judy Woodruff interviewed President Barack Obama a day later.

Obama “danced all around it,” Branch said.  

Here it is: Obama is the victim of partisan racial gridlock.

Everyone agrees that Congress is dysfunctional and that the tea party has put sand in the gears of Washington. 

But is it accurate – or unfair -- to ascribe race as a motivator of partisan gridlock?

Even practiced interviewers like Ifill and veteran interviewees like Obama get hives using the words race and racial. Ifill held the question until last, and she used many words asking it. She asked the president if he agreed with the historian “and, if so, what, if anything, the first African-American president can do to break through that kind of motivated gridlock.”

The last thing Obama wants is to suggest that he considers himself a victim of racism. He talked and talked. He went on for 647 words, more than twice as many words as Lincoln used for the Gettysburg Address, and basically Obama said no, he doesn’t think partisan gridlock is race-based.

But he did offer context to gridlock. Since the 1960s, Obama said, people have fought government efforts to help minorities and the poor as being bad for the economy, and that has led to thinking of government as the problem instead of the solution. That in turn led to criticism that “pointy-headed bureaucrats in Washington are just trying to help out minorities or trying to give them something free.”   

Bingo! Obama is thinking of the racism of George Wallace even if he’s not talking about it.  

In early 1963, Alabama’s governor declared, “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” As Branch tells it, the March on Washington and other events convinced Wallace that talk of segregation and race were unacceptable, and Wallace never mentioned them again.

"He turned on a dime,” Branch says. “He switched his message adroitly.”

That September, Wallace launched a presidential bid with a speech that turned his scorn to “pointy-headed bureaucrats,” tyrannical judges and “tax, tax, spend” legislators.

It was “the beginning of the vocabulary of modern politics,” Branch says.  For him, “The greatest unexamined question today is to what extent the underpinnings of partisan gridlock are racial.”

I thought of Branch’s question in connection with recent comments of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, about Jesse Helms.   

“We need a hundred more like Jesse Helms in the U.S. Senate,” Cruz declared Sept. 11 at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Helms died five years ago, but his star in the political right constellation is brighter than ever. 
Former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., head of Heritage, calls Helms “my kind of conservative.”

Cruz said that he sent his very first political contribution -- $10 -- to Helms because critics were “beating up on him.” Helms’s “willingness to say all those crazy things is a rare, rare characteristic,” Cruz said admiringly.

Cruz was 19 in 1990 when Helms ran a chilling campaign ad against Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s black mayor. The ad showed a white man’s hands crumpling up a job rejection letter. “You needed that job and you were the best qualified, but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota,” the voiceover said. Helms won his re-election bid.

Helms, unlike Strom Thurmond and Wallace, never recanted or apologized for his use of racism as a political tactic.

In the 21st century, America needs to move forward, not back. We can’t afford to listen to rhetoric from the bad old days, whether we call it racially tinged or racist.  

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Obama and the Velcro presidency -- Sept. 19, 2013 column


Thirty years ago, Democratic Rep. Patricia Schroeder of Colorado said President Ronald Reagan had perfected the “Teflon-coated presidency.”

Reagan could shed scandal the way Teflon allows eggs to slide from a frying pan, she griped.

It was a great line but a bit of a stretch. Reagan wasn’t as popular in office as all that. He became a conservative icon only in retirement. Once, in a period of high unemployment in 1983, his job approval rating dropped to 35 percent.

But he bounced back. Reagan’s genial manner connected with voters even when corruption and other misdeeds afflicted his administration. At this point in Reagan’s second term -- September 1985 -- 60 percent of Americans approved of the job he was doing, according to the Gallup presidential tracking poll.

Sixty percent is hardly stellar, but it would be a welcome gain for President Barack Obama, whose job approval rating hovers around 45 percent, roughly the same as his predecessor, George W. Bush, in the first September of his second term.

Reagan  may have had a Teflon coat, but later presidents have seemed wrapped in Velcro. In these hyper-partisan times, both Obama and Bush have faced blame no matter what they did. Just last Monday, when a gunman killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard, Obama went forward with a speech criticizing Republicans on the economy.

The extent of the carnage wasn’t known when Obama, at the Old Executive Office Building, said, “We are confronting yet another mass shooting.” After speaking for about two minutes on the tragic event, he turned to his prepared remarks and criticized Republicans for threatening a government shutdown that could imperil the economy.

Republicans blasted the president as callous, but had he scrapped his planned remarks and focused on, say, tougher gun control measures, he would have been accused of using the massacre for political advantage. He can’t win.

Reagan never had to worry about opponents wielding lightning-fast tweets. Even before Obama was criticized for keeping to his schedule during a tragedy, critics raked him over the blogosphere for his handling of Syria. Before that, opponents eviscerated him for his health care plan. It stops insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions and helps millions of Americans get affordable health insurance, but most people don’t know that.   

A majority of people still disapprove of Obamacare, and about one in four say lawmakers should do whatever they can to make it fail, according to the latest Pew Research Center and USA Today poll.

Obama seems to think that Americans are reasonable people and will see the advantages of his plan. He has never yet used the most power piece of real estate he controls – the Oval Office – for a televised address to the nation on health care. Why not?

It’s hard to imagine Great Communicator Reagan missing that opportunity. Reagan set the record for televised Oval Office addresses, speaking to the nation from the big desk 34 times. By this time in his presidency, he had spoken two dozen times from the Oval Office.

The Obama team has no shortage of tweeters who tweet, but the boss has given only two prime-time, Oval Office addresses. They were three years ago, one about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and one on the end of combat operations in Iraq.

Obama’s predecessor also was no fan of the Oval Office address. Bush gave six major Oval Office addresses during his two terms.

Some Obama advisers dismiss the Oval Office address as a relic of the last century. Yes, times have changed since Reagan could announce a prime-time speech, assured that the three major TV networks would carry it and that his message would dominate the next day’s news.

But the Oval Office is still the most powerful room in America. Obama apparently prefers walking down the hall and standing at the lectern in the East Room, as if he’s at a news conference when he isn’t.

My guess is Obama may yet resort to another Oval Office speech, but his delay has cost him. He gets zero credit for slowing the rate of health care cost inflation and all the blame for businesses’ deciding to stop providing health insurance to employees.

He promised people who get insurance through their jobs that they’d be able to keep their plans. He apparently did not foresee that some big companies would use the changing insurance landscape as an opportunity to cut back on benefits.

Obama doesn’t have a Teflon presidency, and it will take more than tweets to unwrap his Velcro coat. The Oval Office is waiting.

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Camp Hoover tells a presidential tale -- Sept. 12, 2013 column


Before the ranger started a tour of Camp Hoover in Shenandoah National Park the other day, she asked visitors: What do you think of when you hear the name Hoover? 

For a moment, all you heard was birdsong. Then a woman ventured, “FBI?”

That would be J. Edgar Hoover. Ranger Danielle Yoder gently explained that Camp Hoover was President Herbert Hoover’s summer White House.

Today, many people might find it hard to place the 31st president. Hoover won the 1928 election in a landslide, only to see his popularity and prestige evaporate as the economy collapsed in the Great Depression.  His name became synonymous with misery.

Hoovervilles were the shantytowns that sprang up when the homeless sought refuge in cardboard and scrap metal shacks. Hoover blankets were newspapers stuffed inside coats to keep out the cold; Hoover Pullmans were the rail boxcars that desperate people rode to start life anew.  

Hoover blamed congressional foes for refusing to enact his programs to deal with the crisis, although he arguably worsened the Depression by signing the Smoot-Hawley Tariff bill in 1930. Aimed at protecting American farmers and businesses, the law raised the average import tax to about 40 percent.

In 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt easily defeated Hoover. Historians mark Hoover as a brilliant, compassionate humanitarian -- and a failure as president.

A visit to the presidential retreat provides a sympathetic, personal portrait of a beleaguered president and his independent wife.  Byrd Visitors Center has a first-rate exhibit about the history of the park and the Hoovers’ getaway. The park service’s free bus tours start from the center. There I met Bill Jones, a newly retired teacher who, in his first summer as a seasonal naturalist park ranger, became intrigued by the Hoovers and started reading everything he could find on them.

Hoover’s life is a classic American success story, says Jones, whose enthusiasm is infectious. Hoover, the son of a Quaker blacksmith in Iowa, was orphaned by age 10 and was sent to live with relatives in Oregon. He was graduated in the first class at Stanford, where he met his future wife, Lou Henry, the university’s first woman geology graduate. She, like Hoover, loved the outdoors. 

Hoover made a fortune as a mining engineer and became known as a humanitarian during and after World War I, leading U.S. food relief efforts in Europe that fed more than 300 million people. 

Hoover’s program cut Americans’ food consumption 15 percent without rationing, through such voluntary efforts as wheatless, meatless and porkless meals and days every week.

Even before his 1929 inauguration, then in March, Hoover realized he’d need to escape the “pneumatic hammer” of the nation’s capital. He wanted a rustic place within 100 miles of Washington, at an elevation above 2,500 feet to be free of disease-carrying mosquitoes and the capital’s sweltering heat and humidity in those pre-air conditioning days, and a good trout stream to satisfy his passion for fishing. He found it at the headwaters of the Rapidan River in the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

Hoover, who refused a salary as president, paid for the 164 acres and the furnishings himself, and the Marines built the 13 buildings as a training assignment. The presidential hideaway had a mess hall to serve 20, horse stables, a trout hatchery, a town hall and guest cabins. Building Camp Rapidan, as the Hoovers called it, meant more roads, electricity and telephone lines into the remote mountains. They entertained frequently, and their guest list was a “who’s who” of American business and government. 

“I have discovered that even the work of government can be improved by leisurely discussions of its problems out under the trees where no bells or callers jar one’s thoughts,” Hoover said.

After using the camp from 1929 to 1933, the Hoovers gave it to the federal government, with the idea that it would be used by future presidents. FDR visited once and found the terrain too challenging. He built his presidential retreat, Shangri-la, in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. President Dwight Eisenhower renamed it Camp David.

Visitors today can go inside two of the three buildings still standing at Camp Hoover, including the Hoovers’ simple cottage, which they had painted brown to contrast with the ornate White House and its political noise, worries and cares. The camp remains as secluded in the mountains as Hoover’s life is in the public memory.

©2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Obama, Congress and the big stick -- Sept. 5, 2013 column


President Theodore Roosevelt’s 20th century admonition that in foreign affairs it’s best to “speak softly but carry a big stick” is getting a 21st century makeover.

President Barack Obama speaks softly but he wants Congress to help wield the stick.

On the verge of authorizing limited military strikes against Syria, the president pivoted when expected support disappeared. The United Nations is “paralyzed,” he said, and even ally Great Britain declined to get involved after a negative vote in Parliament. More than 200 members of Congress had signed letters urging Obama to seek congressional approval before taking action.

And so he paused the march to war, or missile strikes, and launched a campaign to win congressional and international approval to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his people. 

“Our democracy is stronger when the president and the people’s representatives stand together,” Obama said.

For the president, the move is as risky as it was surprising. Congress and the president rarely stand or even sit together, and approval is far from assured. So while the Senate convened hearings, Obama and his team tried to marshal the power of persuasion on TV and in closed-door meetings.

In a sign of the showdown looming on Capitol Hill this week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 10 to 7 Wednesday to support the limited use fo force. Obama faces opposition from progressive Democrats as well as from isolationist Republicans. 

U.S. officials say conclusive evidence shows that about 2:30 in the morning of Aug. 21, rockets carrying sarin nerve gas blasted the sleeping suburbs of Damascus. Among the more than 1,400 people killed were 426 children.

Obama conceded that Americans are war weary, but he asked: “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?”

What, indeed? Once again, though, the age-old debate between intervention and isolation is playing out on Capitol Hill.

Since President George Washington warned against permanent alliances with foreign countries, Americans have been leery of taking a role in foreign conflicts.

World War I was supposed to be an exception. President Woodrow Wilson argued that it was in our national interest to maintain a peaceful world order. After the war to end all wars, memories of horrific casualties sent us back to the anti-intervention corner.

In the 1940s, it took the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to galvanize Americans behind the war. And only after 9/11 did we take the plunge in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This time? Questions abound about the goals and consequences of air strikes and an exit strategy, but Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, says he believes Congress ultimately will rise to the occasion.

“This isn’t about Barack Obama vs. the Congress,” Rogers told CNN. “This isn’t about Republicans vs. Democrats. This has a very important worldwide reach in this decision.”

But Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and others say military action in Syria would be a mistake. Paul predicted the Senate will back Obama but on NBC’s “Meet the Press” gave the odds of “at least 50-50 whether the House will vote down involvement in the Syrian war.”

Obama needs Congress’ blessing now in the event future crises require military intervention. He’s caught between the rock and hard place of his own words. His assertion that the use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that demanded retaliation had forced his hand while his remarks as a presidential candidate held him back:

“The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation,” he told the Boston Globe in 2007.

Obama surely has learned through experience how much easier it is to campaign than to govern. Governing requires hard choices and speaking softly. It’s time for Congress to back the president on use of the big stick.