Thursday, April 28, 2016

Running mate's new role: attack and cuddle -- April 28, 2016 column

Carly Fiorina may be the best thing to happen to Ted Cruz since Dr. Seuss.
In 2013, Cruz, an obscure senator with dreams of the White House, staged a talkathon on the Senate floor against funding the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. During the 21-hour theatrical performance, he read the good doctor’s “Green Eggs and Ham” to his little girls as a bedtime story.
The stunt gained Cruz the national attention he craved among conservatives – and the enmity of fellow senators.
Now, hoping to revive his flagging campaign, Cruz has named Fiorina – his former rival for the Republican presidential nomination and former CEO of Hewlett-Packard -- as his running mate. After losing a string of contests to Donald J. Trump, Cruz hopes this unorthodox move will help him win Tuesday’s primary in Indiana.
Cruz in essence is asking voters to give him a second look in this Year of the Woman’s Card. Even if you don’t like me, he seemed to say Wednesday in Indianapolis, you’ll like her and then maybe you’ll like us enough.  
Fiorina, an adept public speaker, previewed her role in the campaign. She blasted Trump and Hillary Clinton as “two sides of the same coin” and “part of the system,” and she shared a snippet of a made-up song she sings with Cruz’s daughters, ages 8 and 5, on the campaign bus.
“I know two girls that I just adore. I’m so happy I can see them more,” Fiorina sang.
In the past, humanizing a candidate was a job for a candidate’s wife. Attacking the opposition was the VP’s role. Fiorina showed she can punch – and cuddle. That’s a first.
She also could be helpful in California, where she has ties and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2010. But her home is in Virginia. In 2011, she and her husband Frank bought a $6.1 million mansion on five acres with sweeping views of the Potomac in a gated community in Lorton.
Choosing a running mate used to be almost an after-thought, but that’s changed in recent years. Cruz’s early pick suggests the choice may be especially important this year.
The election is shaping up as a contest between two of the most unloved and distrusted people in America, Trump and Clinton. An appealing running mate could conceivably sway some none-of-the-above people to go to the polls.
So, besides geography, gender, age, ethnicity, ferocity, the wow factor and, yes, even qualifications to step in as president, a running mate’s favorability or comfort level with voters is a factor.
For example, if Trump were to pick John Kasich, someone who actually has experience in Washington, the choice might make Trump less scary to moderate Republicans and dubious independents who lean toward the GOP. Might.
Kasich has said, as he must at this point, that he’s not interested in being anyone’s VP and is developing his own list of running mates. 
Trump has said he won’t announce his choice until he actually wraps up the nomination. But he is dropping tantalizing hints. When a supporter, South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, mentioned on CNN Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin as a possibility, Trump tweeted: “Great job and advice.”
If the election came down to Trump and Clinton in Virginia, some Bernie Sanders supporters and independents leaning Democratic might hold their noses and vote for Clinton if one of their senators, Tim Kaine or Mark Warner, was at her side.
“Kaine is Able, and Warner is Too,” read a headline in National Review a year ago.
Another hot Democratic prospect, with an eye to the Hispanic vote, is Julian Castro, secretary of Housing and Urban Development and a former mayor of San Antonio, Texas. But a Clinton ally once told Politico that Tim Kaine speaks better Spanish than Castro.
While Sanders is laying off staff, Clinton has set her campaign on vetting VP candidates.
“She has told her team she cares less about ideology and personal compatibility than about picking a winner, someone who can dominate the vice-presidential debate and convince Americans that Mrs. Clinton is their best choice,” Patrick Healy of The New York Times reports.
That’s the bottom line: It’s all about winning, and who can help the most.
© 2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

GOP could party like it's 1952 -- April 21, 2016 column


Donald J. Trump, having vanquished apathy, has set his sights on ennui. He wants to save us from another boring Republican National Convention.

The GOP confab in 2012 was “the single most boring convention I’ve ever seen,” said Trump.

“It’s very important to put some showbiz into a convention; otherwise people are going to fall asleep,” he told The Washington Post.

Even actor and director Clint Eastwood couldn’t rescue Mitt Romney’s convention four years ago. Eastwood’s rambling conversation with an empty stool as if President Barack Obama sat there was simply odd.

Whatever Trump has in mind, the proceedings in Cleveland in July to pick the Republican presidential nominee likely will be anything but a snooze fest.

Trump claims he’ll have the 1,237 delegates needed for nomination, but the Dump Trump movement is still kicking, despite a setback in New York on Tuesday. Trump insists that, if he falls short of the magic number, fairness demands that he be the nominee, because he has won millions more votes than his rivals.

His rivals are just as insistent that they should win. With the delegate math against Ted Cruz and John Kasich, though, much depends on the rules, which the convention’s Rules Committee will draft ahead of time. A majority of delegates must ratify them.

Like him or not, Trump is brilliant at using media – old and new -- to his advantage.

“My famous line `I’m the only one that BEAT Ted’ updated from 21 times to 22 times!” he tweeted after the New York primary.

He became a household name a dozen years ago with his reality TV show, “The Apprentice.” He tweets constantly and has 7.6 million Twitter followers. He dominates the news and hardly needs to buy ads because he gets his message out free.

Since many people now get their news through social media, instant reactions to how the GOP settles on a nominee could affect attitudes about the party going into the fall campaign.

For clues, we can look to 1952 and the dawn of television, when Republicans had a seriously contested convention.

When Republicans met in Chicago in July 1952, the race between “Mr. Republican” Sen. Robert A. Taft of Ohio and World War II hero Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower was neck-and-neck.

Eisenhower’s forces appealed to fairness. They accused Taft of stealing delegates and challenged the credentials of delegations from Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.

Eisenhower’s delegates ultimately were seated. Ike won the nomination on the first ballot and swept to victory in November over Democrat Adlai Stevenson.

The 1952 nominating conventions were the first TV covered on a large scale. On camera, the politicians in the Gold Room of the Congress Hotel played up to the people back home. They made their deals in a smoke-filled kitchen that was off limits to TV. Here’s how a young newspaperman reported it:

“In calmer days, the Gold Room is a banquet hall…But today the Gold Room was a political arena from which television was showing millions of Americans a bitter struggle for control of the National Convention,” wrote Charles McDowell of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

When he arrived at the Gold Room, “no seats were available for junior reporters from the provinces,” he recalled later. A kindly security guard let McDowell slip into the kitchen. The pols thought the reporter was a hotel functionary, he said.

 In “the huge tiled kitchen, with its racks of glasses, stainless steel sinks and signs saying `Keep it Clean,’” McDowell saw what TV missed – the horse-trading that preceded the action on the convention floor.

People at home saw Eisenhower as “a national hero standing above politics and demanding simple justice from the cynical bosses of what had always been a closed process,” McDowell wrote later. The people’s reaction was swift.

“The telephone calls and telegrams poured into Chicago; the feedback was pro-Eisenhower,” McDowell wrote
Just imagine the tsunami of tweets and texts – our era’s telegrams and calls -- if Trump doesn’t get his way at this convention.

Showbiz? We won’t need it as long as Trump’s in the show. Nobody will snooze.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Stopping Zika one bucket at a time -- April 14, 2016 column

Congressional Republicans are balking at President Barack Obama’s request for $1.9 billion in emergency funds to prevent and treat the Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes. Why the reluctance?
“They haven’t been bitten yet,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
It’s politics as usual in Washington. Republicans said the administration should use already allocated funds, so Obama shifted $510 million from the fight against Ebola in West Africa and $79 million from diseases like malaria and tuberculosis to Zika.
But that’s not enough, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, who’s holding out for the full $1.9 billion.
“I’m not an alarmist,” Fauci told reporters Monday, “but the more we learn about the neurological aspects (of Zika), the more we look around and say, `This is very serious.’”
The nation’s top docs say the Zika threat is “scarier” than initially thought. Zika causes severe birth defects in newborns and is linked in adults to Guillain-Barre syndrome, an immune system disorder, said the Centers for Disease Control.
So far, no mosquitoes have transmitted the virus in the United States, although officials say that could change this summer.  
The 346 Zika cases reported in 40 states are all travel-related. Florida has the most with 85 cases. In Virginia, nine cases have been reported. Tennessee has had two cases, and Alabama, one.
In Puerto Rico, where mosquitoes are spreading the virus, hundreds of thousands of cases are expected this year. The government is distributing Zika prevention kits there and in other hard-hit areas.
There’s hope for a vaccine, with trials possibly starting in September. Obama is expected to sign into law a measure providing incentives to pharmaceutical companies to develop Zika treatments.
Once again, though, neither the White House nor Congress has thought to enlist ordinary Americans in fighting the threat. After 9/11 when the government mobilized for the war on terror, leaders asked nothing of most people. About 1 percent of Americans volunteered for war; the rest were told to go shopping. 
With Zika, the government is asking women who are pregnant or plan to be not to travel to affected areas.
But if we ever we needed a common enemy to draw us together, it’s now. Americans may be poles apart politically, but it’s safe to say nobody likes mosquitoes. Even before Zika, mosquitoes brought us West Nile Virus, and still do. To them, we’re just a meal.
Officials say Aedes aegypti, a.k.a. yellow fever mosquito, is most likely to transmit Zika. It has been found in 30 states, including throughout the Southeast. Until its tie with Zika, this mosquito was known for causing more casualties in the Spanish-American War than combat.
So, what’s a patriot to do in the undeclared war on mosquitoes? I stopped by the Arlington County (Va.) Cooperative Extension Service office and learned more about mosquitoes than I knew to ask.
For example, only the female mosquito bites. She needs a blood meal to lay eggs. The Aedes aegypti deposits hundreds of them on wet container walls or near standing water. Even if the surface is dry, the eggs can hang on for months. When water reappears, they hatch and grow to full-grown in a week.
Chemical insecticides often kill the beneficial insects along with the pests and can be bad for pets and pond fish. So, before you hire an exterminator, have a “dump the bucket” party in your neighborhood. Empty cans, flower pots and birdbaths weekly.
Get rid of old tires. Put goldfish in your pond to eat mosquito larvae or use larvicide donuts. Check gutters and downspouts to be sure they are free flowing and don’t hold water. Repair window screens.
When possible, wear long sleeves and long pants. Use products containing DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus on exposed skin – but not under clothes. Follow the label instructions.
And listen to Mikulski: “The mosquitoes are coming. You can’t build a wall to keep them out, and the mosquitoes can’t pay for it.”
But we can join our neighbors and dump the bucket. Early and often.
©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

If only the 2016 campaign could rise to poetry -- April 7, 2016 column


It’s National Poetry Month, so let us praise politicians who campaign in poetry in 2016.

Anyone . . . Anyone?

In the 1980s, Mario Cuomo could say without irony: “You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.”

Obviously, Cuomo couldn’t have imagined today’s presidential contest when he made the distinction between the lofty words that inspire voters and the gritty compromises needed to make policy.

In January, the prospects for poetry in the campaign looked promising. When Bernie Sanders launched his brilliant ad using Simon and Garfunkel’s “America,” Hillary Clinton said she loved it.

“We need a lot more poetry in this campaign and in our country,” she told Chris Cuomo of CNN at a Democratic town hall in Iowa. “So I applaud that. I love the feeling. I love the energy.”

The feel-good feeling didn’t last. The campaign soon devolved from poetry to a coarse limerick.

Rare in 2016 is the presidential candidate who appeals to what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Two exceptions: Democrat Martin O’Malley, who was given to recitations of Irish poetry, and Republican John Kasich, who stays more cheerful than combative in a campaign marked by insults, anger and ridicule.

We know how far quoting Eavan Boland by heart took O’Malley. We’ll see whether Kasich can parlay civility and thoughtfulness into anything higher than third place. Donald J. Trump’s wordsmithing begins and ends with taunts --“Lyin’ Ted,” meet “Low-energy Jeb.”

It wasn’t always like this.

“Our nation’s first great politicians were also among the nation’s first great writers and scholars,” then-Sen. John F. Kennedy recounted in a 1956 commencement address at Harvard, his alma mater. “Books were their tools, not their enemies.” He himself won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1957 for “Profiles in Courage.”

Americans’ appreciation for poetry is reflected in the fact that 42 states and the federal government have poets laureate.

The Virginia state Senate in February invited Virginia poet laureate James Ronald Smith, who teaches at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, to read a poem on the Senate floor.

Margaret Britton Vaughn received a lifetime appointment as Tennessee’s poet laureate in 1996. Alabama poet laureate Andrew Glaze died in February at the age of 95.

The term of the U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera ends in May. Several presidents, starting with JFK, have invited poets to read at their inaugurations.

We celebrate National Poetry Month because the American Academy of Poets decided in 1996 that poetry should have its own month the way black history and women’s history do. It’s grown into the largest literary celebration in the world, the academy says.

At a poetry month celebration at the White House last April, President Barack Obama said: “The greatness of a country is not just the size of its military, or the size of its economy, or how much territory it controls. It’s also measured by the richness of its culture.”

And, Obama said, “If you want to understand America, then you better read some Walt Whitman. If you want to understand America, you need to know Langston Hughes.”

The Library of Congress website has a Presidents as Poets area with information on eight presidents who wrote poetry at some point in their lives, starting with George Washington’s “anguished love poems,” through Obama. Obama had two poems published in the literary magazine at Occidental College when he was an undergraduate.

Asked by The New Yorker in 2007 to evaluate Obama’s work, the estimable Yale literary critic Harold Bloom said one poem was “not bad – a good enough folk poem with some pathos and humor and affection.”

Bloom was less charitable toward published poet Jimmy Carter, calling him, “literally the worst poet in the United States.”

In his 1956 commencement speech, JFK told a story about an English mother who wrote her son’s school: “Don’t teach my boy poetry; he is going to stand for Parliament.”

“Well, perhaps she was right,” Kennedy said, “but if more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politics, I am convinced the world would be a little better place to live.”

I agree, but we need not wait for the politicians. April 21 is Poem in Your Pocket Day, when people find a poem they love and carry it with them to share. What’s yours?

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.