Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Not all bad: 2019's redeeming moments -- Dec. 26, 2019 column


The one big event in 2019 history will remember is the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

How future generations will judge impeachment is an open question. Much depends on what happens in 2020 in the Senate and in next year’s presidential election.

As this politically and culturally ugly year ends, Americans are in a sour mood. Only 37 percent of us approve of the current direction of the country while 57 percent disapprove, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls.

And yet, 2019 wasn’t all bad. There really were bright spots in the gloom.

In the spirit of the season of hope, I’ll share a few things that make me feel better about our cantankerous country. I’m sure you can think of others.

First, about 2.1 million federal employees will be in the vanguard for a benefit that’s been a long time coming and most American workers only dream of: paid parental leave.

Federal workers will have 12 weeks of guaranteed paid leave for the birth, adoption or foster care of a child starting next October. The measure was part of the National Defense Authorization Act Congress passed with true bipartisan support and Trump signed into law Dec. 20.

The House approved the defense bill 377 to 48, with almost the same number of Democrats and Republicans in support -- 188 Ds and 189 Rs. The Senate vote of approval was a lopsided 86 to 8. The idea that Democrats, Republicans and Trump can agree on anything is close to miraculous.

The measure is a needed change that sets a new benefit standard for states and private employers. But it doesn’t go far enough. It does not provide paid leave for workers caring for a chronically ill spouse, child or other close relative, as Democrats had sought.

Only four states – California, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island – have established paid family leave plans. The District of Columbia, Washington state and Massachusetts have plans on the books that are being phased in.

Only about one in five American workers have access to paid family leave, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The United States is the only industrialized country that does not require paid family leave. Expect a renewed effort in Congress to change that sorry state of affairs.

The progress of women in government was another shining facet of 2019.  

For the first time in history, more than two women are competing for a major party’s presidential nomination. At one point, six women were in the running for the Democratic nomination. Four remain.

Women are taking their places in state capitals too. A record number of women – 48 Democrats, 41 Republicans and two nonpartisans -- hold executive offices in the states, according to an analysis by the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. That’s 29.3 percent of the executive positions.

Nevada in 2019 became the first state where women hold a majority of state legislative seats – 32 of 63 or 50.8 percent. Virginia set new records for women’s representation; 41 women will serve in the General Assembly in January.

With Democrats taking control of the Virginia legislature, the Democratic caucus selected Del. Eileen Filler-Corn as the first woman Speaker of the House of Delegates and Del. Charniele L. Herring as majority leader. Herring is the first woman and first African-American chosen for that role.  

Women also made history in the sports world, inspiring a new generation of girls.

The U.S. women’s national soccer team won the 2019 Women’s World Cup, four years after its 2015 triumph. Then the Washington Mystics won the Women’s National Basketball Association championship. Elena Della Donne led the team to victory while playing with not one but three herniated discs in her back.

“Congrats to the @WashMystics on a gutsy, first-ever championship!” tweeted former President Barack Obama. “A great team performance when it counted. If folks aren’t careful, this title thing might become a habit in DC.”

Amazingly it happened. The Washington Nationals surprised everyone when, after a lackluster start of the season, they roared back to win the World Series.

For once, everyone in Washington was on the same side -- hugging, cheering, weeping over our Nats. The unity was short lived, but it was lovely while it lasted.

If only we could see such team spirit again in 2020.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Oh, Christmas tree, real or artificial -- Dec. 19, 2019 column


Decades after Thomas Edison first draped a strand of electric lights outside in 1880, a teenager named Albert Sadacca saw the future of Christmas lights, so the story goes.

Sadacca’s family owned a novelty lighting company, and young Albert in 1917 suggested they offer brightly colored strands of Christmas lights.

Albert and his brothers formed the National Outfit Manufacturers Association (NOMA), a trade group that became known as NOMA Electric. NOMA’s members cornered the market on Christmas lights until the 1960s, according to the Library of Congress.

So imagine my surprise when I unpacked my Christmas decorations and found again in its torn cardboard box a NOMA Sparkling Tree Top Star -- “Lights Up with Sparkling Halo Effect.”

Made in the USA, the star is simplicity itself, metal painted white on a silver glitter base. A single bulb on a cord lights the star. The handwritten pricetag says it cost a princely $1.45.

The star graced, if that’s the right word, the top of my family Christmas tree when I was a child but hasn’t been used in decades. Still, I can’t bring myself to toss it, so it lives in a storage tub, along with a couple of tangled strands of long-unused, multi-colored outdoor bulbs with rusty clips.

I also have strands of little, tasteful, white and multi-colored lights I bought this century. They were made in China, Cambodia and Mexico.

My typical Christmas decorating consists of making do. So I put the little lights and ornaments on the two spindly Norfolk Island pines I’ve pressed into Christmas service for going on 20 years. Done.

But the blazing summer of 2019 was brutal to my elderly trees. They needed a season of rest, and I needed a Christmas tree, but what kind?

Naturally, I turned to Facebook for advice. I told my friends I was considering an artificial tree for the first time. Good idea or bad?

It wasn’t even close. Almost all my friends extolled the virtues of artificial trees.

You can save money and avoid the mess of dried pine needles, Pam said, concisely summarizing the argument. 

“Only drawback is they don’t smell as good as fresh cut,” said Joe. But Annie counseled: “Solve the aroma problem with a pine or cypress scented candle -- and let your light shine.”

Rachel added another practical consideration. “No hauling one to the curb after Christmas is over.” Plus, “My dog will eat anything and everything on the floor and I didn’t want to worry about getting pine needles up before she did.”

Bobbi said her family had loved their real trees for years, but she developed an allergy, maybe to insecticide or sap.

“Got an artificial tree and just got a second smaller one this year after selling our old one,” she said. This year, they also got a tabletop real tree for their back porch.

But Jim adamantly opposed the artificial: “My daughter had one for several years, and we shamed her every Christmas. She called last week and invited us to join her cutting down a real tree at Christmas Tree Farm,” he wrote. “She’s been allowed back in the family.”

Another Jim mentioned a decision when buying the artificial tree you’ll have for years: white lights, multi-colored lights or no lights?

This was getting complicated. We looked at artificial trees with white lights and they were beautiful, even without decorations. Price made them a commitment.

We decided to check out the real trees at the annual Alexandria Police Christmas tree sale. A good cause, the sale is the main fundraiser to send local kids to summer camp in Kilmarnock, Va.

Santa’s nice helpers helped us choose, trim and rope to the car roof top a 6-foot Fraser fir from West Virginia.

Once we put it up, we saw its bare spots, but you really can’t now that it’s repositioned and decorated. In the front window, the tree looks pretty with its warm, multicolored lights. At the top is a papier-mâché angel. She doesn’t light up or sparkle, and that’s fine.

Yes, I have to remember to add water and sweep up needles every day, and when we have to haul the tree outside for recycling, it’ll leave a trail of needles.

But that’s later. For now, it’s bright and cheery – and it feels right for us. Merry Christmas!  

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Getting to yes on impeachment -- Dec. 12, 2019 column


Last June, I wrote that impeaching President Donald Trump was a bad idea for Democrats because most people opposed it.

I also thought House Democrats would not go for impeachment unless and until public sentiment changed.

I was wrong on both counts.

As the House moves toward a vote on impeachment next week, most people still oppose it. I no longer think it’s a bad idea for Democrats, though it is politically risky.

Not impeaching Trump would be smart, practical politics, but allowing his corruption to go unchecked would harm our democracy. Sometimes you have to take a stand.

The testimony of courageous former federal officials before the House Intelligence Committee persuaded me Democrats are right to hold the president accountable for his conduct regarding Ukraine.

The House will vote on two articles of impeachment -- abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

“They said these two things – they’re not even a crime!” Trump shouted Tuesday at a rally in Pennsylvania, apparently disappointed Democrats didn’t hit him with more. He sees impeachment as a political plus.

The constitutional standard for impeachment includes “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which Congress, not criminal statutes, defines.

Democrats charge he abused the power of his office when he tried to force a foreign government to help him gain personal advantage over a political opponent, and he obstructed Congress in its investigations.

Trump has continually flouted norms of personal behavior with impunity. Now, House Democrats are saying we have a president, not a king, and no one is above the law.

Reflecting our hyper-polarized country, almost all House Democrats will vote for impeachment while House Republicans en masse likely will vote no.

The Republican-controlled Senate will hold a trial after the first of the year. Whether it will be the longer show trial Trump wants or a shorter one favored by some senators isn’t clear.

Under the Constitution, removing the president from office requires a vote of two-thirds of the Senate. The Senate will vote to acquit Trump, keeping him in office.

He then will declare vindication and play the victim to rally voters next November.

Public opinion hasn’t changed much over the last six months. Last June, 54% opposed Trump’s impeachment and removal from office while 41% favored it, CNN reported.

That was after Robert Mueller’s report investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election was released. Mueller’s report did not exonerate Trump, as he and his allies repeatedly claim. Nor did it move public opinion.

Since then, news broke of a whistleblower’s complaint about Trump’s July 25 phone call to Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and the House Intelligence Committee held hearings that laid out the case against Trump.

Trump asked Zelensky for “a favor”: investigate leading Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who had served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

Trump also held up hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine, releasing the funds only after he learned of the whistleblower’s complaint.

Support for impeachment has inched up.  For example, 45% of voters believe Trump should be impeached and removed from office, but 50% say he should not, the latest Monmouth University Poll reported Wednesday.

Trump remains defiant, insisting he has done nothing wrong, stonewalling congressional investigations of his actions. That suits his coalition just fine.

Evangelicals like his Supreme Court and other judicial appointments. The rich like his tax cut and their healthy stock portfolios. Gun makers and enthusiasts like his stand against gun control. Business likes his rollback of environmental laws and other regulations.

Even vapers like Trump because he walked away from his promise to ban some flavored e-cigarette products.

In the past, Republicans would have been uncomfortable with the president’s coziness with Russia – especially as it interferes in another election. But Trump’s “America first” policies make it OK to be isolationist and anti-immigrant.

So, yes, Trump will survive impeachment. Ultimately, history will judge whether  Democratic or Republican lawmakers did the right thing.  

But will voters reward him with a second term? That depends on the Democrats’ choice as their presidential nominee and how well the candidate withstands the vile campaign of innuendo, misrepresentations and outright lies Trump will wage to ruin his opponent.

Sad to say, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

©2019 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.