Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Learning from a messy presidential debate -- Oct. 1, 2020 column


Not that time stood still during the first presidential debate, but at one point I desperately checked the clock: How much longer can this last?

The 90-minute dumpster fire, street brawl, fiasco, expletive-deleted storm – pick your description -- still had nearly 30 agonizing minutes to go.

The way President Donald Trump behaved, he seemed determined to ensure he’d never again have to debate Democrat Joe Biden.

Trump broke the debate rules his campaign had agreed to, insulted Biden repeatedly and made many baseless claims.

His blab-athon – by one count he interrupted Biden or moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News more than 120 times – was over the top.

It was classic, classless Trump -- shocking but not surprising.

Trump is a showman, and his fans love his “gladiator” style. This time, even his allies said his jabs missed the mark.

Biden did not take Trump’s bait. He mostly kept his cool, though he called the president a “clown” and said, “Shut up, man,” when Trump was talking over him. Vigorous and sharp, Biden was not the least bit sleepy.

This doesn’t mean Biden’s performance was flawless. In a rare policy moment, he refused to say whether he supports ending the filibuster in the Senate or adding justices to the Supreme Court, both favored by progressive Democrats.

Trump again refused to offer any details of his supposed health care plan.  

The bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates promised Wednesday to consider format changes so the two remaining presidential debates will be more substance oriented. Good luck with that.

Trump who trails Biden in most polls, tries to deflect attention from his record on the coronavirus by sowing confusion and distrust in our revered institutions – public education, public health and the electoral process, among others.

The president continues to claim, falsely, the only way he can lose is if Democrats steal the election.

The presidential winner should be decided Election Night, he says, even if millions of mail-in ballots are uncounted. He wants to install Amy Coney Barrett as the ninth Supreme Court justice to help settle the election.

Without evidence, he constantly claims Democrats will flood the polls with fraudulent votes and voters. Meanwhile, voter intimidation and suppression are in the air.

Trump and his family are recruiting an “army” of supporters to watch for fraud at early voting places and on Election Day.

“We need every able-bodied man, woman to join Army for Trump’s Election Security Operation,” Don Trump Jr. said in a video the Trump campaign posted on social media Sept. 23.

President Trump told Sean Hannity on Fox: “We’re going to have sheriffs, and we’re going to have law enforcement and we’re going to have, hopefully, U.S. attorneys” at the polls.

But when Trump observers tried Tuesday to enter early voting places in Philadelphia, they were turned away. Trump tweeted:

“Wow. Won’t let Poll Watchers & Security into Philadelphia Voting Places. There is only one reason why. Corruption!!! Must have a fair Election.”

Three exclamation points do not make corruption the only possible reason poll-watchers were denied entry. As usual there’s more to the story.

Tuesday was the first day of early voting in a few satellite locations where people could register and vote. Rules are different at those locations than at regular polling places, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Election officials are also following safety restrictions because of the pandemic, the paper said.

Every state sets its own election rules. In Virginia, a poll watcher must be registered to vote, and the state limits on the number of poll watchers allowed per party in polling place.

As we go into the final weeks of the 2020 campaign, we can expect more Trumpian efforts to erode confidence in the election.

But remember this: Our neighbors, mostly volunteers, work the long hours at the polls and tabulate the ballots. State officials, not Trump, certify the winners.

I’ve been a city poll worker, and I know how hard these volunteers work for a fair election.

After the debate, analysts kept using the same word to describe it: chaos. Messy and stinky work too.

I won’t be surprised if democracy’s longest hour and a half was a preview of the election chaos ahead.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Voting in a Supremely important election -- Sept. 24, 2020 column


I voted. As a reporter, I’ve never put a campaign sign in my yard, donated time or given even a dime to any candidate.

But I always vote. So, six weeks before Election Day, I voted early and in person -- no excuse necessary. Voters in Virginia used to need an acceptable reason to vote absentee. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case.

People were already in line – masked and socially distant – before the Alexandria election office opened at 8 on sunny Tuesday morning. I came back about an hour later. The line was longer, and again I passed by. But I was antsy to do my civic duty. I walked back.

The third time, oddly, there was no line. I walked in, showed my driver’s license and received a Registration Verified tag which I exchanged for my paper ballot. A staffer led me to the freshly wiped-off voting booth, and I filled in my choices, staying within the boxes. It took only a couple of minutes.

Outside, people again waited in line.

Voters are, to borrow a Democratic campaign slogan from the past: “Fired up! Ready to go!”

For many, the passing of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the exercise of raw political power by President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to name and confirm a replacement at warp speed adds urgency to voting.

As if choosing the next president weren’t motivation enough, voters also will decide control of the Senate, where a simple majority confirms who will sit on the Supreme Court and other federal courts for life.

Ginsburg served on the court for 27 years. Trump’s first two picks to the Supreme Court – Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – are in their 50s.

It now appears McConnell has the necessary Republican votes to push a nominee through before the election, despite refusing to allow even a hearing for President Barack Obama’s last nominee in 2016.

Since Trump came to office in 2017, Republicans have made filling judicial seats a priority. Besides the Supreme Court justices, Trump has named 210 other federal judges to lifetime appointments, according to the Federal Judicial Center, the research arm of the federal judiciary. That’s more than one in four federal judges.

The Senate currently has 53 Republicans and 47 Democrats – including two Independents who caucus with Democrats. To win control, Democrats need to pick up three or four seats, depending on who wins the White House. The vice president breaks a tie.

Thirty-five Senate seats are up, including special elections in Arizona and Georgia to replace Republican senators appointed to serve out the unexpired terms of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who died in 2016, and Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia, who resigned for health reasons at the end of 2019. Republicans are defending 23 Senate seats.

Virginia is viewed as a safe Democratic Senate seat. Democratic Sen. Mark Warner holds a comfortable 19-point lead over Republican challenger Daniel Gade in the latest RealClearPolitics average of polls.

In the Electoral College contest for president, Virginia is Likely Democratic, according to projections by the University of Virginia’s Crystal Ball.

Crystal Ball prognosticators this week moved the critical Senate race in Maine from Toss-up to Leans Democratic and, saying Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina “is in greater danger of an upset,” moved that race from Likely Republican to Leans Republican.

As chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Graham’s role in the Supreme Court fight “could save him, though,” the Crystal Ball noted.

Meanwhile, we’re about to enter debate season. The first presidential debate is Sept. 29, with a vice presidential debate Oct. 7. Two other presidential face-offs are scheduled Oct. 15 and 22.

I think most people have made up their minds for president, and the debates won’t change much. If you’re undecided, you can still wait until Nov. 3 to cast your ballot in person at your regular polling place.

Mail-in voting is also an option – just request and mail in your ballot early.

I’ll still watch the debates, glad I put my ballot through the scanner and saw the waving American flag on the screen, indicating my ballot was recorded.

I voted. How about you?

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Liking Ike at his memorial -- Sept. 17, 2020 column


One of the surprising things about the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, which was formally dedicated Thursday, is that it exists at all.

In our time, many white American men once revered and honored by their country have been toppled – literally or figuratively – from their perches of prominence. 

The reputations of many presidents – Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Wilson come to mind – have been tarnished.

And yet, the new Eisenhower memorial makes admiration not only possible but likely, even in 2020.

Renowned architect Frank Gehry elevates Eisenhower by focusing on his personal story, his ideals, his integrity and his lifetime of service to country.

The 34th president and five-star general is portrayed in the four-acre space at 540 Independence Ave., SW, in three separate, sculptural vignettes representing different phases of his life – boyhood, the military and the presidency.

But the memorial also includes two gigantic cylindrical pillars that look like smokestacks and a 450-foot-wide, 8-story-tall metal “tapestry” of woven stainless steel whose main purpose seems to blur the ugly federal office building right behind it. For that, the location is to blame.

The memorial sits in a new urban park across Independence Avenue from the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and in front of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Department of Education Building. That modernist building, completed in 1961, is so charmless it was originally known as Federal Building #6.

The National Mall is nearly full, and this location does offer a view of the Capitol, where President Eisenhower respected and worked with Republicans and Democrats. It’s near buildings that house federal departments with links to his presidency. In time, when the trees grow, the location may feel less odd.

Creating a memorial to the man who led the troops that saved the world from Nazism and was twice elected president might seem straight-forward, but the process was mired in controversies that lasted far longer than World War II.

Congress authorized the Eisenhower memorial in 1999 and chose Gehry’s design a decade later. But the Eisenhower family was dead-set against having a statue of Eisenhower as a boy as the centerpiece as well as three huge, metal scrims. 

After congressional hearings and years of negotiations, the family came around when Gehry moved the boyhood statue to the side, dropped two of the scrims and changed what’s shown on the remaining one.

Instead of Kansas, it’s Gehry’s own sketch of the Pointe du Hoc cliffs at Normandy, France, in peacetime. Army Rangers scaled the cliffs under German fire on D-Day, the air, land and sea invasion that changed the course of World War II and history.

The bronze statues depict Eisenhower first as a boy in Abilene, Kansas, dreaming of his future, then as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, boosting the morale of six paratroopers on the eve of D-Day.

Finally, he’s shown as president with three aides in the Oval Office. Seeing the office takes a bit of imagination, but the free audio tour, part of the E-memorial available on personal electronic devices, provides context.

The three aides are symbolic of the competing influences of domestic progress and strength abroad. Closest to Eisenhower is a Black man, carrying a briefcase. He symbolizes the work Eisenhower did to advance civil rights, the audio tour explains.

In 1957, he sent 1,000 troops from the 101st Airborne to protect nine Black students as they integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Etched into the reverse side of huge granite blocks behind the sculptures are excerpts from Eisenhower’s most famous speeches.

“I’m quite overwhelmed by it,” granddaughter Susan Eisenhower told CBS News as she toured the memorial for the first time this week. “I’m really thrilled.”

But the $150 million memorial has received mixed reviews. “Monumentally Mediocre,” pronounced The Wall Street Journal.

 The audience for the Eisenhower memorial is not art critics, of course. The main audience is children in grades K-12, who may be inspired to dream of greatness, as well as tourists and office-workers.

They are likely to visit the memorial in the daytime, but the better views are at night, when the sketch of the cliffs is illuminated.

I think children and their families will be grateful the Eisenhower memorial exists.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, September 10, 2020

Scared yet? Fear again a campaign tool -- Sept. 10, 2020 column


Since businessman Donald Trump glided down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy for president in June 2015, he has stoked fear.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said that day. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems . . . they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

In the home stretch of the 2020 campaign, Trump is running as the law and order president, claiming Democrats will tolerate lawlessness.

“You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” he warns, raising the specter of anarchists running loose to loot, burn and obliterate American cities whose police have been defunded by Biden and “radical socialist Democrats.”

Former Vice President Biden does not support defunding the police and has made clear rioters, looters and arsonists should be prosecuted.

“Donald Trump keeps telling us if he was president, you’d feel safe. Well, he is president – whether he knows it or not,” Biden tweeted.

Fear is a time-tested campaign tool used by both parties to excite voters. More than half a century ago this week – on Sept. 7, 1964 -- perhaps the most effective presidential campaign ad in history aired on TV.

Known as “Daisy,” the 60-second, black-and white spot for President Lyndon B. Johnson shows a little girl counting as she picks petals off a daisy. An ominous male voice then counts down to a nuclear blast, and the camera focuses on the child’s eye, which transforms into a massive, fiery mushroom cloud. 

“These are the stakes,” Johnson intones in a voiceover. “To make a world in which all God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.”

The Daisy ad was shocking at the time, but it’s more subtle than campaign ads we see today.

It didn’t even mention Barry Goldwater, LBJ’s Republican opponent, and it ran only once – although it aired repeatedly on talk shows and news programs.

Goldwater was already trailing Johnson, so it’s unclear how much the ad contributed to Johnson’s landslide victory of 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52.

To win reelection, Trump doesn’t need to scare vast numbers of people into voting for him – just enough to carry the battleground states, as he did in 2016.

But will it work? In 2018, Republicans wielded the cudgel of fear in congressional races, and Democrats still flipped about 40 House seats to regain control.

Trump’s strategy is to attack Biden with everything and the kitchen sink.

Biden wants to raise your taxes, offshore your job, throw open the borders, wage endless foreign wars, surrender to China and destroy the suburbs, Trump says. That’s a hefty agenda for someone Trump derides as “Sleepy.”

As technology accelerates, campaigns can target digital ads to individual voters through social media in record time.

Hours after news broke of journalist Bob Woodward’s bombshell book, “Rage,” a new Biden ad on Twitter played audio tape of Trump saying to Woodward about COVID-19: “I wanted to always play it down . . .  I still like playing it down.”

The ad faults Trump for failing to inform the public accurately and blames him for tens of thousands of lost American lives.

“It’s unconscionable,” Biden tweeted. Trump maintains he just wanted to avoid panic.

The anti-Trump Lincoln Project, founded by a group of Republican operatives, fills social media with ads attacking Trump and Republican senators.

A new Lincoln Project ad hits a new low. The ad shows hideous pictures of flesh-eating parasites and likens Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, to a parasite.

Still, the worst in negative ads and fearmongering may be yet to come.

Of the nearly 70,000 political television ads that ran in the final days of the 2016 campaign, fewer than one in 10 were primarily positive, according to a CNN analysis of data from Kantar Media/CMAG.

The reason is both parties believe, as Richard Nixon did, that fear is a great motivator. Nixon’s speechwriter William Safire wrote in his book “Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House”:

“People react to fear, not love – they don’t teach that in Sunday School, but it’s true,” Nixon said.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Election month? Buckle up for more 2020 turmoil -- Sept. 3, 2020 column


Ah, Labor Day, the last unofficial weekend of summer, the return of pumpkin spice latte and start of the sprint to the presidential campaign finish line.

We can hope.  

Election Day is less than two months away, but like everything else in 2020, election night may not be what it usually is: the end of the election.

There’s a growing consensus Americans need to get ready for a long goodbye to this election. 

“We may have to prepare for election week or even election month,” Democrat Elaine Kamarck of the Brookings Institution wrote. “There will be more absentee ballots than ever before and it will take longer to count them.”

“This election will feature days – possibly weeks – of indecision, which invites chaos, and chaos invites greater division,” Republican Karl Rove wrote in The Wall Street Journal.

Traditionally, the presidential candidate ahead on Labor Day could expect to carry the election. No more. In 2016, Labor Day polls showed Hillary Clinton running ahead of Donald Trump, but Clinton learned the bitter lesson that winning the popular vote is no guarantee of an Electoral College victory.

This Labor Day, former Vice President Joe Biden leads President Trump by 7 points – 49.4% Biden to 42.3% for Trump -- in the latest Real Clear Politics average of national polls. But polls are tightening in battleground states.

Meanwhile, Trump is again provoking distrust in the electoral process. As he did four years ago, Trump claims the election may be fraudulent and rigged against him.

“The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged,” Trump says.

That’s nonsense. He can lose fair and square, but will he accept defeat?

Trump says the election will be rife with fraud because of mail-in voting. It’s true more voters than ever will be casting ballots by mail because of COVID-19, but mail-in ballots are not new and need not be risky.

One in every four Americans cast their ballots by mail in the last two federal elections. In Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah and Washington, mail balloting is the primary method of voting – and reports of fraud remain “infinitesimally small,” reports the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, a nonpartisan law and policy organization.

“It is still more likely for an American to be struck by lightning than to commit mail voter fraud,” the Brennan Center says.

But Trump wants to up the confusion ante. He urged voters to try to vote twice – absentee and in person – even though it’s illegal to vote more than once in an election.

“Let them send it in and let them go vote,” Trump said Wednesday in Wilmington, N.C. “And if the system is as good as they say it is, then obviously they won’t be able to vote” in person.

“Today, President Trump outrageously encouraged NCians to break the law in order to help him sow chaos in our election,” state Attorney General Josh Stein, a Democrat, tweeted.

“Make sure you vote, but do NOT vote twice! I will do everything in my power to make sure the will of the people is upheld in November,” Stein said.

Biden Wednesday accused Trump of “trying to delegitimize” election results and urged people to “vote as early as you are permitted.”

By now, most Americans see Trump’s claims of voter fraud as an attempt to fire up his base to vote in person while egging Biden voters to stay home. Why bother to vote if the election is rigged?

Trump’s steady drumbeat casting doubt on the election results could have consequences beyond Election Day. There are signs the winner of the presidential contest – whoever it is – will be considered illegitimate by a good chunk of voters.

Some 28% of Biden voters and 19% of Trump voters say they’re not ready to accept the result if the other guy wins, according to a new USA Today-Suffolk University poll.

The last thing we need is more distrust and division, so do what you can to make your vote count. If you don’t want to risk your health by voting in person Nov. 3, vote early or request and send in your mail ballot early.

Don’t procrastinate.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.