Congress: a profile in cowardice

photo NBC News

photo NBC News

Will it take a Baltimore Orioles/Washington Nationals World Series to bring members of Congress back to Washington soon?  If so, it only highlights Congress’ cowardly unwillingness to exercise its Constitutional responsibility and vote on the ISIS war. This least productive, shortest session of Congress ended with no debate on President Obama’s new response to the terrorist threat roiling in the Middle East with potential spillover far beyond Iraq and Syria.  Shame on them!

Prime Minister David Cameron called members of Parliament back to London to hear the case for military intervention. That was leadership.  Some in Congress fault President Obama for waging war without their approval.   He acknowledged that a decision of this sort is stronger with bipartisan support from the legislative branch of government. The President could have called them back but failed to do so. He follows a long line of Presidents who have acted the same way, even though Obama (2008 version) talked about the importance of Congress’ role and differentiated himself from Hillary Clinton on Iraq, winning the nomination.

Speaker John Boehner and Senate President Harry Reid could have called their members back from electioneering.  There is bipartisan support for the President’s strategy of targeted air strikes in Iraq and Syria, counter-terrorism actions against the leadership of ISIS, going after ISIS’ financial sources and training indigenous ground troops.  Is the fact that they agree a reason why the GOP doesn’t want the discussion before the elections, when they’re intent on running against the President?

Action was essential in the wake of dramatic events culminating in the beheadings of American journalists Jim Foley and Steven Sotloff. We do need to be deliberative when embarking on a course putting American lives at risk, but the President’s slowness to retaliate was frustrating. Now, finally, he is acting. His muscular UN speech last week was a 180-degree turn from his highly qualified  foreign  engagement principles pronouncements at West Point not long ago.     But where do we go from here, for how long, and at what cost?

The 1973 War Powers Act gives the President the authority to act militarily without Congressional approval if the U.S. is in danger.  After 60 days, there must be a Congressional vote on declaring war.  It’s a reasonable concept, but the last time Congress formally declared war was 1942, and we have had numerous wars since then. Congress did authorize military force to combat terrorism in 2001 in Afghanistan. A year later, another vote authorized war in Iraq.

The volatility of the region, coupled with complex tribal, religious and ethnic rivalries, makes the stakes very high.  But intractable regional issues and lives on the line aren’t the only reasons we need a full debate now. Remember, President George W. Bush’s  going to War in Iraq without saying how it would be paid for was one of the prime reasons for the economy-weakening deficit President Obama assumed when he took office. What new taxes are we willing to pay or programs are we willing to cut to pay for this new open-ended engagement? We also need all our elected officials to debate our relationships with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as with the Syrian opposition— and with our so-called Saudi and Qatari allies who have also been funding the ISIS cause.

Clearly, some of the difficulty of assembling a coalition is the President’s  having walked away from his “red line” in Syria. How steadfast should our commitment be? Remember Reagan’s bailing on Lebanon when  our marines were killed.  What happens if other nation’s ground troops aren’t up the to the task? Mission creep has  started. We already have US personnel in boots on the ground in  Iraq.

There’s widespread agreement that achieving the goal to “degrade and destroy” ISIS will take a long time. Probably years. You can’t do this without public debate.  Whether our Congressmen or women are for or against this third Iraq war plus, they don’t deserve our votes in November if they’re not willing to return to Washington now for a full debate and vote on the issue.

I welcome your comments in the section below.



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Silly season in the Governor’s race

Charlie BakerForget the gaffes, and get to the issues.  Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker reportedly referred to Fox TV reporter Sharman Sachetti as “sweetheart,” and she and other women have taken umbrage.  Massachusetts’ National Organization for Women (NOW) has blasted his “sexist treatment of a female reporter.”  Baker said he “was kidding” and later apologized.  Sounds a lot like what happened when Democratic attorney general candidate Warren Tolman told assistant AG Maura Healey that her criticism of him was “unbecoming.” Or when then-gubernatorial candidate Mitt Romney used that word with then-Treasurer Shannon O’Brien.

All these men ought to have known better, but we should be judging our candidates not on the basis of an errant slip of the tongue but on their track records, character and approach to government.  I can tell you this:  When I was involved with The Boston Club’s effort to get highly qualified women onto corporate boards, Charlie Baker headed our corporate advisory committee, working for several years to get CEO’s of public companies to walk the walk on creating access for women executives to the inner sanctum of decision making.

As Globe columnist Renee Loth wrote in September, he’s the “kind of Republican an unrepentant liberal could almost love,” a libertarian who is on the right side of issues like choice and gay rights. And, unlike his former employer (Bill Weld), Baker knows the workings of government inside and out and believes in public service (Weld ran against it and mocked those who work in government).

I think Baker did a terrific job at Harvard/Pilgrim.  As Shirley Leung opined in today’s Globe, he “saved Harvard Pilgrim. End of story.”  Now let’s move on to find out his feelings about the Partners HealthCare expansion (a topic on which Martha Coakley has not covered herself with glory) and how to keep the lid on health care costs. There are many issues and approaches to governing that may divide the candidates and help voters decide. We need a serious debate, for example, on where the people of the Commonwealth should and should not be willing to invest public dollars, but we’re wasting valuable time focusing on trivia.

Baker is basically a decent guy. Nowadays, however, with his clichéd emphasis on taxes and welfare, Baker sounds more like the old fashioned kneejerk welfare/crime/taxes Republican.  This, even though he is working hard to present the newer, softer, more affable Charlie Baker than he was when he ran four years ago. Which is the real Charlie Baker? I can’t answer that inasmuch as the praetorian guard of his press secretary won’t answer my requests to sit down with the candidate whom I have known and covered since he was Human Services Secretary back in the paleolithic era.  That, in itself, doesn’t say much for the candidate.

As for the “sweetheart” gaffe, the next woman who gets called “sweetheart” by a politician should just reel around and ask, “what is it, honey?” Let’s move on, and talk about real problems and workable solutions.

I welcome your comment in the section below.

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Lessons from Red Sox racist history

Red sox primary logoThe best baseball book of 2002 was Boston Herald reporter Howard Bryant’s Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston.  Even growing up with the Red Sox, until reading the book years ago at the insistence of my non-Red-Sox-fan husband, I was never fully aware of the deep-rooted racial intolerance of the team under the Yawkeys.  The owners only grudgingly tried out Jackie Robinson and Sam Jethroe, but the try-outs were a sham, and the team never contacted them again. They also passed on Willie Mays. Having star potential was not enough to outweigh color of skin.  I remember when they  hired Pumpsie Green, the last team in baseball to hire a black player, and again did it only because they had to. Other steps to set aside bias only limped along until the current ownership took over.

Memories of the bad ol’ days endure, as evidenced by Boston Globe writer Bob Hohler’s excellent article in Sunday’s paper about African-American Tommy Harper, a Red Sox center fielder, club MVP and league leading base stealer in 1973 until he was traded to the Angels. As Hohler points out, when Harper played for Boston,  he got hate mail and racial slurs at Fenway. There were more indignities at spring training in Florida , especially when other players were given free guest passes to an all-white country club and he was not.  Where were Yaz, Bill Lee, Carlton Fisk, Dwight Evans and others when all this was going on?

Apparently none of the Red Sox management or players – and certainly none of the owners – stood up for Harper. As Hohler points out, reporters remained silent until the mid eighties (Harper had by then been hired back as a staffer under MCAD pressure to diversify) when Peter Gammons and Michael Madden started looking into the continued segregation to which Harper was subjected at spring training.

When Harper spoke up, the Red Sox contrived reasons to fire him.  He went to the EEOC, the Red Sox settled but never admitted wrong-doing.  In the early ’90’s he became part of the coaching staff, and since 2002 has been a player consultant. Things changed under the new ownership, and in 2010 he was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame.

There are lessons still to be learned from the Tommy Harper experience. Hohler’s article is a compelling reminder that you can have laws and rules that bar wrong-doing, but it takes leadership at the top and buy-in from the team to change  an institution’s culture and eliminate prejudice and indifference throughout its ranks. We’re seeing this today in the NFL’s turning a blind eye to domestic violence among its players.  Getting rid of the man at the top, Roger Goodell, would have some symbolic value, but, just as improved race relations came from changed Red Sox ownership, so too would football benefit from football owners stepping up to the plate and providing leadership at the tops of their organizations. Drugs, domestic violence, head injuries – there’s plenty for them to work on.

I welcome your comments in the section below.


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New solutions for NFL Neanderthals

NFL logoI’m with Karl Rove, at least on this: Condoleezza Rice should replace Roger Goodell as head of the National Football League.  Goodell has been a toady for the owners, who get fat profits from leaving the game just where it is. Despite lip service to the contrary, they have accepted barbaric behavior from the players on and off the field.

The PBS documentary League of Denial showed the conspiracy of silence and cover-up of the lifelong brain damage to players from repeated concussions.  And off the field, events of the last weeks – think Ray Rice of the Ravens, Adrian Peterson of the Vikings,  Greg Hardy of the Panthers, Ray McDonald of the 49ers – show domestic violence is a way of life for some players, and enabling them (as long as they perform well on the field) is a way of life for team owners.

Rice (Condoleezza), the former Secretary of State, is a lifelong Cleveland Browns fan, who has always said being NFL commissioner would be her dream job.  Unless she were gelded from the get-go by those who appointed her, I think she could demonstrate more testicular fortitude than the incumbent. She’s strong, capable, knows the game, and could negotiate the shoals among owners and players alike, committed to doing what’s best for the game and the humans involved. Female fans  are the hot demographic for the NFL.  Eighty-five percent of abuse victims are female, according to studies reported in the Wall St. Journal. Who better to succeed Goodell that a powerful, smart, capable, female African-American football aficionado?

Yet even a change of commissioners is not enough. Congress has demonstrated its unwillingness to deal responsibly with a host of pressing issues. But the expected do-nothing  lame duck session coming up could be an opportunity for them to revisit the laughable, sweetheart non-profit tax exemption the NFL enjoys. It might even bring together tax hawks and doves. Congressional action that could hurt their pocketbooks is one thing that could get the owners’ attention.

Losing sponsorships would also send a clear message. Radisson hotels just pulled out from the Minnesota Vikings in the wake of Adrian Peterson’s child abuse scandal. Wouldn’t it be nice if other corporate interests stepped out of their luxury boxes and followed suit?

The fans also have to play their part, indicating their ire or at least not buying team gear and wearing jerseys of their favorite wife beaters or child abusers.  Female fans in Baltimore last week sporting Ray Rice jerseys were especially nauseating. As Charlie Pierce said on Bill Littlefield’s Only a Game, “there is virtually no limit to American hypocrisy when we want to be entertained.”

The Patriots won big Sunday, and that was satisfying. But I wish Bob Kraft had been a more stand-up guy for the values that his late wife, Myra, championed.  Something is rotten with NFL football.  Whether the Patriots, Vikings, Packers or Jets, I kept wondering which players, under all that gear,  were going home to beat up their wives and girlfriends. Or maybe abuse their kids. Globe columnist Joanna Weiss writes about the need to change the culture accepting domestic abuse and how even a zero-tolerance policy is “just not enough.” Probably so, but at least it would be Step One.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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In Scotland, what’s really under those kilts?

domino effectThe domino theory, used by the United States to justify military intervention in Vietnam, has always been fallible. In Southeast Asia, neighboring Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy. Thailand is a parliamentary (if unstable) democracy.  The Indonesian archipelago is a republic.   But this week’s vote in Scotland to determine whether the land of bagpipes, kilts, golf, whisky and North Sea oil should become a separate nation could trigger a global exercise of the domino theory – that could rip apart multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation states.

It’s hard to imagine a worse time for a vote like this to succeed.  As laid out by analysts far more sophisticated than I, if Scotland can secede from the U.K., why should anyone respect national borders?  Should the Basque separatists have their own nation?  What about the Catalan in Spain? People in Barcelona refer to themselves as the capital of Catalonia and have agitated for years to have their own country. Why should Russia respect the borders of the Ukraine (it has already taken Crimea) or, for that matter, any part of any nation of the former Soviet Union in which substantial numbers of Russian speakers live? Vladimir Putin, who has called the breakup of the Soviet Union the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century, seems to be trying to recreate it.

The domino theory envisioned a one-country-at-a-time tipping over of the established order.  What could follow here would have a more viral impact and be a recipe for global chaos. Middle East national boundaries are an artificial construct to begin with and didn’t start with the voluntary coming together that characterized Scotland and England 300 years ago.  Borders in the Middle East were  imposed by outsiders, and many of the tensions in that region are rooted in that artifice.  If the Scots can break away by plebiscite, others will seek to do it the ISIS way, a recipe for disaster.

Where does it all end?  The separation of South Sudan from Sudan doesn’t seem to have made things better. Would breaking up the French and Dutch-speaking parts of Belgium make life better in those regions?     As political scientist George Friedman has noted in the Stratfor Intelligence Report,  there are innumerable separatists in parts of Africa, India and Asia who could assert the right to divorce, many of them with greater grievances than the separatists of Scotland.

The outcome of this vote had long been assumed to be a slam dunk No vote. But other polls suggested a tiny plurality of Scots favor independence. With undecided holding the balance, the news this morning is that it’s “too close to call.”

There are many U.K.-centered questions raised by the specter of Scottish independence: the future nation’s currency (its own, the euro, the pound?), defense (they would oust the U.K.’s nuclear installation), membership in international alliances and many more. But the most profound question is what will be the impact around the world. I shudder to think of the worst-case scenarios that might unfold.

I welcome your comments in the section below.


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Observations on state primary 2014

ballot boxThe Y chromosome was in short supply among top winners in yesterday’s primary.  The result is that party candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, state treasurer, attorney general and, in my home county, district attorney and governor’s council, are all women.  (So, too, with unopposed candidates for state auditor, state senator and state representatives.) The women’s vote may not have been dispositive but it sure helped mightily.

Observation #2.  If Juliette Kayyem had been helped out with delegates at the Democratic state convention in June and remained on the ballot Tuesday, Steve Grossman would be the Democratic nominee today. She would have drained  from Coakley at least 6 percent of those voting based on gender.  As it was, the surprising narrowness of Coakley’s margin should give pause to voters concerned about a repeat of 2010, when she stunningly lost the U.S. Senate race to Scott Brown.

Observation #3.  The dramatic success of attractive political newcomer Maura Healey over good guy Warren Tolman is a triumph for the combination of fresh energy and focused professional experience over labor (Tolman’s brother Steve heads the AFL-CIO), the political establishment (elected official endorsements including Boston Mayor Marty Walsh and Governor Deval Patrick) and a more broadly bully pulpit view of the office.

Observation #4. By their action and inaction,  6th district voters told Congressman John Tierney it was time to go. He clearly, and as it turns out unwisely, was saving his resources for an expected general election rematch against Republicans Richard Tisei. He probably believed, as did many, that, as  an incumbent, he would easily prevail in a four-candidate Democratic primary.  He never effectively challenged the distortions in Seth Moulton’s advertising.  And when he finally took to the airwaves, questioning why Republicans were so interested in contributing to Moulton’s campaign, it was he – and not Moulton – who was faulted for going negative.  It appears Republican money was behind a chunk of Moulton’s war chest. And it may be that some Tisei-supporting Republicans-leaning independents also took Democratic ballots and voted for Moulton to weaken Tierney for their candidate in November.  If that was their plan, it may have backfired, making it much more difficult for Tisei now that Moulton is the nominee.

Observation #5.  In the Middlesex race for district attorney, Marian Ryan’s reported steely managerial edge and her inexcusably withholding of public documents that did not reflect well on her office’s handling  the Jared Remy case were apparently less troubling to voters than Cambridge City Clerk Michael Sullivan’s reputation as a political hack and his image as ethically challenged.  This race was the opposite of the AG’s race between two high quality candidates. The DA’s contest was a classic lesser-of-two-evils outcome, aided, again, by the women’s vote.

Observation #6.  With turnout  approximately 15 percent, does it really mean that 85 percent of the electorate are  satisfied with the outcome either way?  That they’ll have no complaints later on?  Saying they’ll vote in the general election if  not the primary is just stupid.  In race after race in a largely one-party state, the primary is the election. (Maybe we should go the way of California, where there’s an open primary and the top two vote getters, regardless of party, go on to the general election.)

In eastern Europe in 1990, just after the breakup of the Soviet Union, I watched elections from Berlin to Bucharest. I saw Romanians stand in line for hours to cast their ballots, often clutching to their breasts photos of loved ones who died fighting the Ceausescu dictatorship for the right to vote.  Our indifference is shameful.

I welcome your comments in the section below.


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Grossman at the top – in all but polls


gube debateThe Democratic gubernatorial debates ended last night. Three decent, intelligent individuals with strong commitment to Massachusetts and public service.  Notwithstanding Attorney General Martha Coakley’s double-digit advantage in the polls, it is Treasurer Steve Grossman who has emerged as the most solid choice. Coakley has the advantage of superior name recognition, while Grossman has drawn the major newspaper endorsements . He’s the one who can put it all together as gubernatorial material.

After following the race and now listening to the two debate each other and pediatrician Don Berwick, who ran the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services for the Obama Administration, one can hardly fail to be impressed by how Grossman (whom I have previously labeled distinctly uncharismatic) has grown as a candidate. Here’s how I see the three:

Coakley, coming from the legalistic ways of the state’s chief prosecutor, tends to look at problems with a certain, if sometimes opaque, practicality but is distinctly without a vision, a leitmotif if you will.  Berwick has lofty ideals but fails to detail how his self-touted management skills would implement his vision.

Grossman manages to have generous helpings of both vision and practicality, and he has a track record both in the Treasurer’s office and in the private sector of delivering on his proposed innovations, especially when it comes to job creation, and combining efficiency with progressive values.  His performance in recent debates has been strong, leaving viewers the impression he would be a strong candidate against likely Republican nominee Charlie Baker in the general election.  Grossman is very well informed, thoughtful and straightforward in his approach to a whole range of challenges.  Coakley is nuanced to a fault, and, while Berwick is clear cut about what he aspires to, he does not explain how he would get from point A to point B.  He simply says that’s what leadership is all about.

One of Berwick’s best lines was directed toward Coakley and her nuance.  “All we’ve heard from you is boilerplate.”  She has yet, he said, “to be bold on something controversial.” That approach could win her the nomination, but might be too cute by half for the general election.

As Boston Globe columnist Shirley Leung wrote regarding Coakley on the casino issue, “Martha Coakley is bouncing around on the casino issue like a pair of dice on the craps table.  Only by chance do you find out what she really thinks.” I would add that, in addition to  Grossman’s ability to talk the talk and walk the walk, he would be a stronger candidate in November against Republican Charlie Baker. In fact, that match-up would be beneficial to the voters.

This race has not generated much enthusiasm. Conventional wisdom has it that in a low-turnout race the candidates’ ground games, their ability to get their supporters to the polls next Tuesday, will matter.  The polls usually sample likely voters, who may be as little as 20 percent of the electorate.  So the only poll that matters is the vote on election day.  And, trite though it sounds,  every vote still does count.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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