Wednesday, January 29, 2020

As Iowa goes, so goes Iowa -- Jan. 30, 2020 column


Don’t expect Iowa’s first-in-the nation caucuses Monday to write history. More likely, they’ll will write history’s footnotes.

If Iowa’s quadrennial caucuses actually picked presidents, we might be talking about Democratic Presidents Edmund Muskie, Richard Gephardt and Tom Harkin. Or Republican Presidents Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz.

All were winners in Iowa’s caucuses, but not one of them became his party’s presidential nominee, let alone president. In 2016’s caucuses, Cruz beat Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton barely edged out Bernie Sanders.

Iowa’s gift to the nation is picking also-rans.

The Hawkeye State began holding the nation’s first presidential contests after the turbulent 1968 election, when nobody cared who went first. These days, many argue Iowa’s demographics make it a poor choice to kick off the presidential voting. It’s 91% white, 4 percent black and residents are older than the national average.

Both the state’s Democratic and Republican parties will hold presidential caucuses Monday night, but with President Trump having only nominal opposition, all eyes are on the Democrats.

Candidates have lavished personal attention on Iowa for over a year, but a week before the caucuses something like 40 percent of Iowa Democrats still hadn’t made up their minds. Sanders appears to be in the lead, but maybe not. He, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren were bunched together within 8 percentage points in FiveThirtyEight’s average of state polls on Tuesday.

A Sanders win would thrill many young and progressive voters -- and the Trump campaign. Trump would love to run against the Democratic socialist. Trump and Co. call all Democrats socialists, of course, but Sanders is really a Democratic socialist, and proudly so. Trump planned a big rally in Des Moines Thursday to tout his accomplishments.

Democratic moderates – read: pragmatists – prefer tried-and-true Biden as the candidate they believe actually can beat Trump.

What’s at stake in Iowa for Democrats is just 41 pledged delegates to this summer’s Democratic National Convention. That’s all. California, which votes on Super Tuesday, March 3, by itself will select 495 pledged delegates.

Under Iowa Democrats’ complex caucus rules, a presidential candidate needs 15 percent of the first vote in a precinct to remain “viable.” If a candidate doesn’t reach the threshold, the candidate’s supporters are free to join another candidate, move to undecided or try to persuade people to join their first-choice candidate.

Since 1972, the candidate who won the most votes in Iowa’s Democratic caucuses has won the party’s presidential nomination in seven of 10 contested races, but only two of them captured the White House, Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Barack Obama in 2008, according to a  history of the caucuses by the Des Moines Register. 

Since 1980, three winners of contested Republican caucuses won the GOP presidential nomination, but only George W. Bush in 2000 won the White House.

A record turnout is expected for the caucuses that start at 7 p.m. Central on Monday in 1,678 precincts around the state. Those who will turn 18 by Nov. 3, Election Day, can participate, as can unregistered voters who register on caucus night.

And, for the first time, Iowa Democratic voters who can’t get home for the caucuses can vote in nearly 100 satellite locations, 25 out of state. Many are in sunny places where winter-weary Iowans retire, in Arizona and Florida. But the Iowa caucus is also coming to Virginia at George Mason University and to Washington, D.C., at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. Iowa Democrats overseas can caucus in Paris; Glasgow, Scotland; and Tbilisi, Georgia.

Also new this time, the state Democratic party will release the first, raw vote totals in precincts as well as the final tally. What could go wrong with transparency? Disputes over who the real winner is.

You’ll probably hear there are “three tickets out of Iowa” for presidential candidates. That stems from the historical tidbit that since 1976 only one Democrat or Republican contender has come in lower than third in Iowa and won the presidential nomination. John McCain finished fourth in 2008 and won the GOP nomination.  

That same year, Iowa Democrats gave Obama a clear victory, launching the little-known senator from Illinois into history, showing Iowa can be a key first step.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Trump commits U.S. to more trees, maybe -- Jan. 23, 2020 column


Nobody would mistake President Donald Trump for a tree hugger.

He has dismissed climate change as a “hoax,” rolled back many Obama-era environmental and clean energy policies that reduce carbon emissions, and is withdrawing the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

But as his impeachment trial was poised to begin in Washington Tuesday, Trump announced during a campaign-style speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the United States would join in the forum’s 1 Trillion Trees initiative. What?

The forum launched to connect, support and fund the international movement to plant 1 trillion trees around the globe in coming decades to fight climate change.

Billionaire entrepreneur Marc Benioff, founder of the software company Salesforce, and his wife Lynne are providing financial support for the digital platform. Benioff said his company also intends “to support and mobilize the conservation and restoration of 100 million trees over the next decade.”

Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will join drew applause from the global business and government leaders in Davos, but it’s unclear what happens next.  

“We will continue to show strong leadership in restoring, growing and better managing our trees and forests,” Trump said, but offered no specifics.

Although he described himself to reporters in Davos as “a very big believer in the environment,” Trump has proposed cuts in the U.S. Forest Service, opened public lands to drilling and mining, and pushed for new logging in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

In Davos, Trump downplayed climate fears saying, “This is not a time for pessimism; this is a time for optimism. . . this is a time for tremendous hope and joy and optimism and action.”

He also indirectly called out Greta Thunberg, the teenage climate activist from Sweden who was in the audience. She urges all countries to heed the call by the United Nations environmental panel to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over a decade to avoid intense climate impact. That will require reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 55% between now and 2030.

But Trump said: "We must reject the perennial prophets of doom and their predictions of the apocalypse. They are the heirs of yesterday’s foolish fortune tellers.” He also lambasted “radical socialists” who would ruin the U.S. economy with environmental regulations.

Forests remove carbon dioxide from the air and store the carbon in trees, vegetation, the forest floor and in the soil. This carbon removal, or sequestration, “makes the forest a type of carbon sink by absorbing more CO2 than is emitted. This absorption partially offsets the contribution of carbon to the atmosphere from carbon sources such as the burning of fossil fuels,” the Virginia Department of Forestry says on its website.

Some nations have acted. Ethiopia planted more than 350 million trees in 12 hours last July, setting a new world record. India had held the record for planting 66 million trees in 2017.

Trump’s comments in Davos reflect the shifting politics of climate in Congress. House Republicans who recognize they’re losing young voters concerned about climate issues, are developing an alternative to the Democrats’ Green New Deal, Axios reported this week. The Green New Deal would remake the economy to fight climate change. The GOP plan stops short of envisioning major changes in how we work and live.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, Republican of Arkansas, is drafting a Trillion Trees Act that will set a target for growing more trees “for the purpose of sequestering carbon,” according to a summary of the bill Axios viewed, but so far does not include an actual numerical target.

Who doesn’t like trees? Planting them makes people feel good, but that by itself won’t come close to solving the climate crisis. It’s estimated reforestation could provide only up to one-third of the climate solutions needed by 2030 to meet the 1.5 degree goal, the forum reported.

“Nature-based solutions will only be effective if undertaken in conjunction with other efforts to transform energy, heavy industry and the finance sectors,” the forum said.

We in the United States should plant trees as a first step, but we, the Trump administration and Congress will need to do more to fight climate change.

© Marsha Mercer 2020. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Make character a factor in 2020 vote -- Jan. 16, 2020 column


On the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, you’ll likely hear people quote from King’s inspiring “I Have a Dream” speech.

“I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their character,” King declared at the March on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. We aren’t there yet.

Today, King, who won the Nobel peace prize a year later and was assassinated in 1968, is revered for his leadership of the civil rights movement and his advocacy of nonviolence. He is an unalloyed American hero and a role model for children.

Role models are rare in public life, and, during the run-up to elections, character can become weaponized. In 2016, Hillary Clinton charged Donald Trump was morally unfit to be president, and he attacked her as “crooked Hillary.”

In 2020, “character is on the ballot,” Joe Biden said Tuesday at the Democratic presidential debate.

We may despair about the country’s direction, but character still counts. President Trump was impeached and faces a trial in the Senate starting Tuesday because integrity still matters.

The House voted last month along party lines to impeach Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, accusing him of attempting to force a foreign power to do his political dirty work, to investigate Biden and his son Hunter.

Trump used the powers of the presidency to benefit his own political campaign. He tried to pressure the president of Ukraine to announce an investigation into the Bidens by withholding nearly $400 million in military aid and denying him a White House meeting. Trump released the aid only after news outlets reported on the scheme.

Trump and his Republican supporters claim he did nothing wrong and have repeatedly slammed impeachment as a “hoax” and a “witch hunt.”

Where people stand politically colors their view of impeachment, but nearly three in four Americans think Trump is not a good role model for children, a Quinnipiac University poll also reported last March. Almost all Democrats – 97% -- said he isn’t a good role model, and nearly 40% of Republicans agreed.

Telling the truth is a sign of character, but this is the president of “alternative facts.” As of Dec. 10, Trump had made more than 15,413 false or misleading claims since he took office, according to fact checkers at The Washington Post.

Democratic presidential candidates have generally avoided getting into the liar-calling business, until now. Elizabeth Warren claimed Bernie Sanders told her in a 2018 conversation a woman could not beat Trump. Asked about it in the last debate, Sanders denied he’d ever said such a thing. After the debate, a live mic onstage caught Warren telling Sanders twice, “I think you called me a liar on national TV.” She refused to shake his hand.

He replied, “You know, let’s not do it right now,” adding, “You called me a liar.”

What’s sad and mystifying is how Trump has normalized abnormal behavior. Many people no longer care if he tells the truth as long as he appoints conservative judges, cuts their taxes and unleashes business from regulations. If, as expected, the Republican-controlled Senate acquits Trump and leaves him in office, he will falsely claim he’s been exonerated, firing up his base for November.

But not all Republicans are sanguine. Sen. James Lankford, a conservative Republican of Oklahoma who directed the large Baptist youth camp there, looked for a role model candidate during the 2016 GOP presidential primaries – and Trump wasn’t, he said on “Face the Nation” last month. He wishes Trump “was more of a role model,” he said, explaining, “I don’t like the way he tweets, some of the things he says.”

But voters, not he, choose who he works with in Washington, Lankford said.

No candidate is perfect, of course, but we can make character decisive when we vote.

As Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1900 when he was running for vice president on the Republican ticket: “Alike for the nation and the individual, the one indispensable requisite is character.”

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