Thursday, February 25, 2016

Super Tuesday voters could put brakes on Trump -- but will they? -- Feb. 25, 2016 column


When Southern Democrats dreamed up Super Tuesday in the 1980s, they hoped to reinvigorate the party in the South by giving it clout in choosing the party’s presidential nominee.

Or as then-Tennessee Democratic Chairman Dick Lodge memorably put it in 1986: “When your dog bites you four or five times, it’s time to get a new dog. We’ve been bitten and it’s time for the South to get a new dog.”

Two years earlier, conservative Southerners, long fed up with Democrats’ presidential picks, not only rejected Walter Mondale and helped re-elect Ronald Reagan but also voted for Republicans for Congress.

Even the new dog couldn’t bring those voters back. They’ve been voting Republican ever since.

Today officials in both parties worry about the down-ballot consequences if insurgents Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders actually become their parties’ nominees.

Both parties are pinning their hopes on Super Tuesday, March 1, when more delegates will be chosen than on any other day during the primary season. Voters in a dozen states -- including Alabama, Tennessee and Virginia -- will cast ballots.

Big question: Will Super Tuesday help choose a widely acceptable nominee – or prolong the agony for the party establishment?

In 2008, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama kept fighting after Super Tuesday’s 22 contests were inconclusive.

Today though, Clinton holds a commanding lead over Sanders in polls in Virginia and other Super Tuesday Southern states, where black voters dominate.

Among Republicans, Ted Cruz, who won the Iowa GOP caucuses, says Super Tuesday will be “the most important night of this campaign.” Rivals Marco Rubio and John Kasich also hope to break out and put the brakes on Trump.

Trump Fever, however, seems to be spreading. The billionaire businessman’s margin of victory widened from New Hampshire to South Carolina to Nevada. In Nevada, Trump won 46 percent of the vote, about the same as Rubio and Cruz combined.  Kasich and Ben Carson together didn’t reach 10 percent.

Super Tuesday was also more snooze than shock in 2012. President Barack Obama was running unopposed for re-election in most states, so all the action was on the Republican side.

Mitt Romney hoped to sweep Super Tuesday states and force his rivals from the GOP race. Romney captured 40 percent of the popular vote and about half the delegates – a performance seen as underwhelming and predictable, much like the candidate himself.

Georgia went for Newt Gingrich and Alabama and Tennessee supported Rick Santorum, who also won North Dakota and Oklahoma and came within a whisker of beating Romney in Ohio. Neither Gingrich nor Santorum was able to qualify for the ballot in Virginia, where Romney won.

“With No Knockout Punch, a Bruising Battle Plods On,” read a headline in The New York Times the day after Super Tuesday.

This time around, Trump -- endorsed by Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University and son of the late televangelist – has surprised the establishment by winning support from white evangelical voters, who dominate the Southern GOP.

In Alabama and Tennessee, for example, more than 70 percent of GOP primary voters are white evangelical Christians, an analysis by Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia Center for Politics found.

In Tennessee, record numbers of Republican voters have turned out for early primary voting, which could bode well for Trump, although that’s uncertain as there have been no recent polls. Cruz and Rubio are also courting evangelicals.

In Virginia, while about 40 percent of the Republican primary vote is evangelical, 58 percent of voters are college educated, says UVa’s Skelley who suggests Northern Virginia voters could blunt Trump, and Rubio could benefit. Trump led in a Christopher Newport University poll of likely Republican primary voters in Virginia in mid-February.

The richest delegate states on Super Tuesday are Texas and Georgia, where Trump is strong. He and Cruz were neck and neck in the latest polls, released Thursday, while earlier Cruz had led handily in his home state. Trump leads by double digits in Georgia and Alabama, according to the polls.

Trump appears to have momentum, and the South is poised to solidify him as the GOP frontrunner. How ironic if Super Tuesday, which was intended to give Southern conservatives a moderating influence on presidential choices, made Trump unstoppable.

If that happens, the parties may want to get a new dog.  

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

For the court: `someone smart' -- Feb. 18, 2016 column


Nearly everybody has advice for President Barack Obama about the Supreme Court vacancy caused by the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia, even Scalia himself.

Scalia, although a Harvard Law grad, was a fierce critic of the Harvard-Yale axis on the court and the narrow range of background and experience of the justices whose opinions shape American life.

This court “consists of only nine men and women, all of them successful lawyers who studied at Harvard or Yale Law School.” Four are natives of New York City, eight grew up in east- and west-coast states, he wrote last June in a dissent in the same-sex marriage case.

“Only one hails from the vast expanse in between. Not a single Southwesterner or even, to tell the truth, a genuine Westerner (California does not count). Not a single evangelical Christian (a group that comprises about one quarter of Americans), or even a Protestant of any denomination,” said Scalia.

All the justices are either Jewish or Roman Catholic. Justice Clarence Thomas, a former Baptist who’s now a Catholic, joined Scalia, also Catholic, in the dissent.

Scalia’s astringent dissents – he was often in the minority – won him many fans in law schools, where he loved to lecture, debate and counsel students. Known for his wit and intellect, he was a popular professor at the University of Virginia from 1967 to 1974. 

He had hired six U. Va. law grads as his clerks in the last 10 years, helping build a path for a new generation to the highest court. A Supreme Court clerkship is often a stepping stone to becoming a federal judge and even a Supreme Court justice.

Obama says he will nominate someone with “an outstanding legal mind” to replace Scalia. The president likely will remember Scalia’s advice after Justice David Souter announced his retirement in 2009. 
“I hope he sends us someone smart,” Scalia told David Axelrod, then Obama’s senior adviser, at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

Surprised by Scalia’s overture, Axelrod replied that he was sure the president would do so, he recalled this week in a commentary he wrote for But Scalia persisted.
“`Let me put a finer point on it,’ the justice said, in a lower, purposeful tone of voice, his eyes fixed on mine. `I hope he sends us Elena Kagan,’” Axelrod wrote.

Axelrod was shocked that the court’s leading conservative would propose a liberal for the court. But Kagan and Scalia shared “intellectual rigor and a robust sense of humor,” Axelrod explained, “And if Scalia could not have a philosophical ally in the next court appointee, he had hoped, at least, for one with the heft to give him a good honest fight.”

That time, Obama chose Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice. The next year, though, when Justice John Paul Stevens retired, the president did choose Kagan.

To expand the court’s horizons this time, Obama may nominate someone whose name is unfamiliar to many Americans: Sri Srinivasan (SREE SREE-nee-vah-sun), a federal appeals court judge.

Srinivasan, 48, is known for his outstanding legal mind, his collegiality and his open-mindedness. He was born in India, emigrated to the United States as a young child and grew up in Kansas.

A graduate of Stanford University with three degrees, he clerked for 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III in Richmond, Va., and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Wilkinson, a Reagan appointee, has called him “lightning smart.”

The Senate unanimously confirmed Srinivasan to the D.C. Circuit in 2013. He won  kudos from Republicans and Democrats, although he drew liberal opposition for representing Exxon Mobil and Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling.

As a law clerk in Richmond, Srinivasan and fellow law clerk Ted Cruz, became friends. Senator Cruz praised and voted to confirm Srinivasan in 2013 but said Wednesday that if Obama nominates him for the nation’s highest court, he will not vote for him.

Cruz wants the election to be a referendum on the court. That’s politics.

Srinivasan would be the first justice from South Asia, the first Hindu on the Supreme Court and the first justice born outside the United States since Felix Frankfurter served from 1939 to 1962.

Yes, Mister President, send “someone smart.”

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, February 11, 2016

Celebrate Washington's birthday -- or not? -- Column of Feb. 11, 2016


Poor George.

Most Americans will stay home from work Monday to observe a federal holiday that’s still officially called Washington’s Birthday, though you’d hardly know it.

On Presidents Day, Washington is largely ignored – except when he’s being knocked.

Yes, some states, including Virginia, and some cities and counties still call the third Monday in February Washington Birthday, and there are a few parades, speeches and cake. 

But the holiday is popularly referred to as Presidents Day, even though Congress and the president never changed the name.

Beloved in life, Washington was lionized following his death in 1799. Eulogized as “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” he became a hero clothed in myth.

An early biographer invented the cherry tree story – “I cannot tell a lie” – to demonstrate young George’s high moral character. “McGuffey’s Readers” picked the story up – as did P.T. Barnum, says the Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, which is maintained by Mount Vernon.

Librarians at Mount Vernon have tracked down other false tales. They’ve also posted on several Spurious Quotations wrongly attributed to Washington.

It’s good to set the record straight, but one aspect of Washington’s life challenges a favorable view of him. What are we in the 21st century to make of the Father of our Country having been an active slave owner for 56 years?

It’s hard for us to imagine virtuous George becoming a slave-owner at the tender age of 11 after his father died and willed him a 250-acre farm and 10 slaves. Hard to picture George as a young man adding to his slave holdings or vastly increasing his slave population when he married.

Yet there were 318 slaves living at Mount Vernon at the time of his death.

Slavery is the indelible stain on early America. Slaves quarried and cut the stones for the U.S. Capitol and helped build the White House. Eight presidents owned slaves while serving in office, and four others owned slaves at some point in their lives.

Washington was troubled by slavery but failed to act while he was alive. Only in his will did he leave a provision to free his slaves following the death of Martha Washington. The remaining slaves were hers through her first husband, who had died.

But Washington did more than Thomas Jefferson, who never freed his slaves.
We still struggle with how to portray the era, as the controversy last month over a picture book for children demonstrated.

Scholastic Press published and then stopped selling “A Birthday Cake for George Washington,” after critics charged it presented too gentle a view of slave life under Washington.

Scholastic denied it was bowing to pressure but said, “We believe that without more historical background on the evils of slavery than this book for younger children can provide, the book may give a false impression of the reality of the lives of enslaved people and therefore should be withdrawn.”

Pulling a book may put out a public relations fire – although free speech advocates rightly criticized the publisher for self-censorship. But hiding our past won’t help us learn from it.
Author Stephen E. Ambrose, writing shortly before his death in 2002, considered how much Washington’s and Jefferson’s ownership of slaves diminished their greatness.

The founders failed to rise above their time and place but they established a system of government that eventually led -- through turmoil, the Civil War and the civil rights movement -- to “legal freedom for all Americans and a movement toward equality,” Ambrose wrote in Smithsonian magazine.

“Washington personifies the word `great.’ In his looks, in his regular habits, in his dress and bearing, in his generalship and his political leadership, in his ability to persuade, in his sure grip on what the new nation needed (above all else, not a king), and in his optimism no matter how bad the American cause looked, he rose above all others,” he wrote.

We in the 21st century owe a debt to Washington, flawed and human as he was, for his vision of a country where all men are created equal. That genius of an idea started us on the path we are on toward equality for all.

Yes, we should celebrate Washington’s birthday.

© 2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, February 4, 2016

Military draft -- not for men only -- Feb. 4, 2016 column


The last draftees opened the momentous letters in 1972: “You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States.”

Since then, generations of young men have registered with the Selective Service System, starting when they turn 18 through age 25. It’s the law. Young women can’t register for the draft even if they want to.

A consensus is growing that it’s time, finally, for women to register. Equality demands it.  

With all jobs in the military – including combat -- now open to women, it’s unfair to conscript only men in a national emergency.  

The Obama administration has not yet decided about changing policy, but two top generals said they personally believe women should register.

“Senator, I think that all eligible and qualified men and women should register for the draft,” Gen. Mark A. Milley, chief of staff of the Army, said Tuesday at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. Gen. Robert B. Neller , the Marine Corps commandant, agreed. 

“I do too,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who had asked the generals’ opinion. She suggested that if women were required to register, more might see the military as a career option.

The all-volunteer force relies on a relatively small group. Only one in four young Americans 18 to 24 can qualify for the military; three in four fail to meet education or physical standards or have disqualifying criminal records.

“To shrink that pool deprives us of a lot of talent,” Neller said.

Whether the Pentagon’s decision to open 220,000 jobs to women could hurt the military is a concern in some quarters. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., fears standards will be lowered if women fail rigorous training programs. For example, 29 female Marine officers have attempted, but not passed, the infantry officer course.

“I don’t see how we can guarantee that in the future, these standards will not be diminished,” Wicker said.

While most people hope the draft will never again be needed, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., a Korean war combat veteran in the Army, favors reinstating it. Others on Capitol Hill favor abolishing the Selective Service and registration altogether. Congress has been cool to both.

President Bill Clinton, who worked to avoid the draft as a young man, in 1995 called the Selective Service a “relatively low-cost insurance policy.” The idea is to deter threats and show that the United States has the means and will to defend itself.

Whether women should be conscripted, though, has long been debated. Near the end of World War II, when nearly 400,000 women enlisted in the military, a nurse shortage prompted President Franklin Roosevelt to call for a bill to draft nurses. The House approved but the Senate balked. The war ended, making the subject moot.

After Vietnam, peacetime draft registration stopped. On Feb. 8, 1980, President Jimmy Carter, reacting to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, announced that he was sending Congress a plan to register men -- and women -- for the draft, should one become necessary.

“There is no distinction possible, on the basis of ability or performance, that would allow me to exclude women from an obligation to register,” Carter said. He stressed that women were not in units likely to experience close combat – and he had no intention of changing that policy.

Congress restarted registration – for men only.

A case challenging the exclusion of women went to the Supreme Court.  In Rostker v. Goldberg, the court upheld the policy, saying it did not violate the Due Process Clause. With women restricted from combat, men and women were not “similarly situated” with regard to registration, the court ruled.

Other cases challenging men-only registration are currently making their way through the courts. 

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter expects Congress to decide whether women should register for the draft.

“It goes back to the need to think generations ahead,” he said Wednesday. The best military in the future will need to “reach into the largest pool of people.”

Resistance to registering women for the draft likely will come from both the left and the right.

“Of course, the idea of parity probably sounds great until you’re putting your daughter on a bus to boot camp,” Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, wrote on the group’s site.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama tried to have it both ways. He favored registering women for military service, he said, although,  “I don’t agree with the draft.”

But it never hurts to be prepared and to share the burden of service.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.