Newt Gingrich made me weep

Newt GingrichBack in the 1990’s,  new House Speaker Newt Gingrich made me furious with his Contract with America, which critics dubbed the Contract on America.  It was an era of slash-and-burn, anti-government GOP ascendancy, when in 1995 the Republican Party took over the House for the first time in 40 years. The victory signaled a more intense fight for smaller government, lower taxes, Constitutional Amendment for a balanced budget, line-item veto and more. Not all of it was bad: it would have subjected Congress to the laws it passed for the rest of us. That didn’t happen.  Combined with more venomous political rhetoric, the Contract was a leap forward in divisive partisanship nationally.

As a young man, Gingrich got a doctorate in history and became a professor of history and geography at a small university in Georgia.   After a couple of unsuccessful bids, he secured a seat in Congress in 1978. A highly intelligent man, he became increasingly aggressive about his conservative causes as his political career took off. In 1995, TIME Magazine named him man of the year for his role in the partisan turn-around in the House.

Partisanship then wasn’t the vitriol of today. Gingrich did manage to work with President Bill Clinton to get some things done, including reasonable tax and welfare reform. In ’97, Gingrich ran afoul of House ethics rules, and, when Republicans lost seats in the midterm elections, he was blamed for it. He resigned the Speakership.

Ever since then, there have been two Newt Gingrich’s. One is Gingrich the big-thinking statesman, the man who has substantively engaged in health care policy and lectured on national defense issues. A regular on the talking head circuit, he has often been a voice of reasoned conservatism.  The other Gingrich is the narrow-minded troll who emerges in Presidential election years, sometimes as a candidate, who is irredeemably nasty.

So, why did Newt Gingrich make my eyes mist over?  He has an op ed in the New York Times today calling for a doubling of the budget of the National Institutes of Health. It was something he had worked to do in a bipartisan way with Bill Clinton two decades ago because, he writes, “health is both a moral and financial issue.” I was moved because such enlightenment hasn’t been much in evidence in the Republican Party of late.

Gingrich decries the flattening out of the NIH budget since that last bipartisan 5-year boost in funding.  Given inflation, level funding translates into a 20 percent cut over the last 12 years .  Federal dollars underwrite a third of all medical research in the nation, but the number of research grants it can underwrite today – for treatments and cures – has decreased substantially over that period.   All the while, our aging population and  higher health costs become increasingly burdensome.

Gingrich says that he, as a conservative who is often skeptical of government investments,  is convinced of the importance of this particular investment. Health care is the largest item in the federal budget.   I agree with him that it is “irresponsible and shortsighted, not prudent, to let financing for basic research dwindle” and lose an opportunity for medical advances to improve quality of life and cut costs in the bargain. Poised as we are on the verge of breakthrough discoveries on dementia and Alzheimer’s (costs of care, he says, expected to exceed $20 trillion over the next four decades), it would be penny-wise and pound-foolish not to push for a cure – for this and other diseases from diabetes to cancer and heart disease – that cost in human suffering and also dollars.

There are a few bipartisan efforts in Congress to increase health research funding. But is that bipartisanship doomed by early onset electioneering?  Will this more enlightened perspective get some traction in the Republican primaries, or will the slash-and-burn candidates prevail? It’s deeply gratifying to see Gingrich stepping out in front on this one.  I can only hope he’ll stick with the issue and have some impact on the election debate.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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Jeb Bush – for now, more appealing than appalling

Years ago, Barbara Bush is said to have commented that son Jeb was the best politician in the family. That’s the side of the former Florida governor that I saw in New Hampshire on Friday morning at the Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College.  The hall was filled to overflowing and the boyish looking, shirt-sleeved soon-to-be Presidential candidate delivered a well-received speech and fielded questions for more than half an hour. He was self-assured without being canned, he was approachable, with self-deprecating humor, easy to listen to.  That sense of being natural stands in contrast to other candidates on both sides of the aisle.

Jeb BushWhile I don’t agree with everything he said, Jeb Bush comes across as someone who is experienced and focused and comfortable acknowledging when he doesn’t have the answer to a specific question. He’s a father and grandfather but still youthful. Bush presents himself as a firm believer that core conservative principles are what lift people up. But his support of Common Core standards in education (as governor, he raised education standards in Florida) and his commitment to immigration reform (giving illegals a path to legal status) put him at odds with those who vote in Republican primaries and caucuses.

So, too, with his belief that the economy will benefit from investment in  roads, bridges and water infrastructure, and that government should support research on disease (through the NIH) and the space program. (Florida, of course, is home to Cape Canaveral.)  Bush is very un-Ted Cruz in declaring that “creating a climate of discovery and adventure provide people hope.”  He speaks intriguingly about the need to bring people together using patience and humility .

The national media were all over this event, as they have blanketed the GOP candidates in New Hampshire this weekend.  The most widely reported comments he made were in response to my question about whether, with the advantage of hindsight, he would handle the Terry Schiavo case any differently. (Schiavo had been in a persistent vegetative state for years.  Her husband wanted to withdraw life support, saying she would not have wanted to live that way.  Her parents fought his decision.  Then-Governor Bush intervened on behalf of the parents, shepherding through a new law to stop the husband. Court after court said the state’s action was unconstitutional, and the husband was allowed to act on what he said were Terry’s wishes.)

Bush averred he would do nothing differently, but he seemed to have given the matter a lot of consideration and talked about the need for end-of-life directives.  In fact, he said, filling out such a form should be a prerequisite for receiving Medicare. The point is that, while I may have been disappointed that he hadn’t changed his mind about the Schiavo case,  he gave a sense that he had been thoughtful about the issue and was seeking answers to a difficult situation.

While Jeb Bush is perfectly comfortable talking about his life story, he tries to position himself as  his own man, using self-deprecating humor to deflect charges of “W” redux and dynastic entitlement.

At our New England Council breakfast, foreign policy was not front and center. This is likely to be a more important area this year. Bush appears to be pulling his advisers together from a group of his father’s moderates and his brother’s neoconservative hawks, designed to give primary zealots enough red meat for the nomination. I assume his backward-looking approach toward Cuba is   part of that dance. How far right he will go to win the nomination is unclear. If he’s successful, he’ll pivot to the center. But as we’ve learned with Obama and other winning candidates,  what’s said to win is often at odds with how they’ll  govern. When unexpected crises arise, character and good judgment can matter more than ideology and promises.

Despite his assurances of his abiding deep conservatism, many  don’t believe him and dismiss him as a RINO. In a recent Bloomberg poll, 42 percent of Republicans and independents said they wouldn’t consider voting for Jeb Bush just because he is a Bush or because he’s not conservative enough.

Of more  consequence to his prospects may be the “independent” super PAC  that can raise unlimited  money from undisclosed donors,  according to the NY Times, operating as an independent “social welfare” organization but run by a Bush friend and former staff member.

This is still early. There were 18 other would-be Republican nominees who showed up yesterday for a panel in Nashua, New Hampshire eager to take him and each other on.   It will take months for the field to shake out. Yet,  in surveying the lot of them, Jeb Bush is much more appealing than I expected him to be.

I welcome your comments in the section below. 

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Hillary makes it official

Hillary The suspense was non-existent. “If” Hillary would run again has been “when” for a very long time. “How” was all that remained to be revealed, and her strategy for announcing was an effective alternative to her 2008 entitled-to-win-it grand opening.  No big staged event, with American flags flying and hordes of supporters waving signs. No big speech. Just a short video on social media in which she didn’t come on camera until halfway through. Emphasis on “ordinary people” talking about their goals, aspirations and challenges. All topped off by her Elizabeth Warrenesque assertions that “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.”

And, if you doubted where she was going, she made it clear, at least thematically: “Everyday Americans need a champion, and I want to be that champion” so they can do more than just get by, so they can get ahead.  And then she and her aides and advisors took off on a bus to Iowa and elsewhere (presumably driving all the way from New York) for a series of small (intimate) meetings in homes and coffee shops.  We know no more about where she wants to lead the country and how she wants to take us there than we did six months or a year ago. But it still felt right.

I confess (please don’t tell anyone) that I felt a tinge of pride as a fellow Wellesley College alum became the first woman to have a really solid chance of becoming President.  Fortunately, those who would vote on the basis of gender alone are under 15 percent. Hillary certainly has more experience than anyone running in either party. She is as tough and savvy as any male candidate. The wonder is that, after all she has gone through, including the constant attacks from Whitewater on, she would want to subject herself to that again.  But she is doggedly determined, which could make for a very strong leader.

Her supporters are “ready for Hillary,” and so are the Republicans.  Her opacity in handling her emails, the questionable contributions to her foundation (and the potential conflicts of interest they imply), her ties to the Goldman Sachs crowd, all feed the unease about her, even among would-be supporters.  According to a recent Bloomberg poll, her favorability swooped from 67 percent in January, 2013 to 49 percent right now.  A majority of those polled find her untrustworthy. Seventy-two percent of Democrats and Independents think she needs a challenge for the nomination.   They aren’t convinced of her inevitability and want her to be tested early and often. I agree.

Her acolytes claim this isn’t necessary, that she’s already been vetted.  But just claiming vetting doesn’t make it so, and we need to hear more about the finances of her foundation. There are a lot of questionable entanglements Bill got into that need to be explored. And how does she square championing international women’s rights with taking big bucks from the Saudis and others who are so abusive toward women?

Will we revisit the Hillary fatigue factor, summed up musically back in 2007 by my colleague Rick Horowitz, an editorialist from Milwaukee Public Television.

She’ll be called upon for more specificity regarding her accomplishments as Secretary of State.  Hard work and miles travelled don’t tell the whole story. Benghazi won’t go away.  We need more details on areas in which she differed from President Obama, as she has said she did in the matter of arming dissidents in Syria.  Where was she on the Afghanistan draw-down? What would she do differently in the deal with Iran to stop it from developing a nuclear bomb?

At this point, Hillary’s candidacy looks formidable, but polls are just a snapshot in time, and we’re still more than a year and a half from the general election.  Hillary’s now in, and political junkies an informed citizens will watch with fascination how she articulates a vision, chooses sides in policy debates, and handles critiques from across the political spectrum on her character and record. And, by the way, we’ll also be watching Bill Clinton to see how he comports himself as he auditions for the role, as Saturday Night Live put it, as “first dude.”

I welcome your comments in the section below.



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Presidential race will thwart progress in Congress

John BoehnerVery knowledgeable politicians speaking in Boston last Monday expressed qualified hopes that Congress could actually get something done.  They pointed to the recent “doc fix,” a remedy for the unrealistic curtailment of Medicare payments to providers.  The bill passed by the House and awaiting Senate action even reauthorized CHIP (the children’s health plan) and provided some funding for community health centers.  The House also reached agreement on funding Homeland Security, eliminating extreme anti-abortion riders.

But what hope does this hold for the future? Former Democratic Congressmen Barney Frank and Bill Delahunt actually agreed with Republican heavyweights John Sununu (father and son) on opportunities for transportation reauthorization, criminal justice reform and even budget resolutions and resulting appropriations.  Later in the week, Jim mcgovernspeaking to the same group, Congressman Jim McGovern added modest tax reform and public works to the list where some bipartisan agreement could be reached.

Are there people of good will on both sides of the aisle? Perhaps. Does it matter? Perhaps not. Speaker John Boehner is obviously key to the process,  especially his willingness to require a simple majority of the House rather than a majority of the Republican majority for passage. Sununu the elder (former Governor of New Hampshire and chief of staff to President George Herbert Walker Bush) told The New England Council that executive leadership is essential to legislative success  and that “the President has to spend some of his political capital.” Son John said that House Republicans have to learn from their success of getting something done, even if it’s not perfect.

The cloud on the legislative horizon, however, is the emerging Presidential race. The window of opportunity for dramatically reducing Congressional dysfunction is closing. By June, everything will be seen through the prism of the 2016 election, and you can probably write off the next year and a half. Wait a minute. Hasn’t this been the script all along? Moderate Republicans who were willing to support Boehner on Homeland Security have already been warned by the Tea Party to expect primary challenges.  As Jim McGovern put it, those moderates “will have to decide whether it’s worth it to stay in Congress that can’t get anything done.” Or will they risk reelection by standing up for principle and agreeing to stop our bridges from falling down or sustain the elderly poor or support life-saving medical research?  I can tell you where my money is going.

I welcome your comments in the section below.

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Globe columnists duel over Boston Olympics bid

photo South Boston Today

photo South Boston Today

It’s great fun to see two outstanding Boston Globe opinion writers going at a subject hammer and tong, in total disagreement about the Olympics, Boston 2024 and the psychic state of the organizers as well as that of the people of Massachusetts.   Joan Vennochi does a surgical rearrangement of John Fish, the driving force behind bringing the summer ’24 games to Boston, in John Fish is Boston 2024’s main force – and its liability.

In response, business section columnist and Olympics booster Shirley Leung asserts “it’s not John Fish; it’s us.”  (Never mind that grammatically it should be “it’s we.” ) Leung insists we’re just naysayers and at risk of becoming the laughing stock of the universe.  I concede there’s a bit of Schadenfreude when a self-appointed group of wealthy elites falls flat on its collective face.  Who are they, after all, to think we’d fall for a plan, conceived in near secrecy, details veiled still, a plan that the rest of us may end up having to pay for?  And we should just thank them for all they’re doing on a rip-off that will benefit many of them financially and for which we will have to ante up taxpayer dollars and disrupt our lives?  Well, it’s not that simple.

We should be looking at the Olympics proposal seriously and not rejecting it summarily. It should be thoughtfully deliberated despite the many communications errors executed by Fish et al. Public doubts are not just because the proponents’ messages have been inartfully delivered. Naysayers, for the most part, aren’t parochial rubes.  Doubters have legitimate questions, and Boston 2024 movers and shakers have been dead wrong to sniff with disdain at anyone who wants more and better answers before joining the bandwagon.

Taxpayer funding is at the top of the list.  With only a couple of exceptions, Olympics cities have run in the red and taxpayers have been left holding the bag, often for billions of dollars.  If Boston follows the example of London, for example, the Boston2024 cost estimate could triple. Organizers say they’ll purchase insurance to cover any overruns, but, as Scot Lehigh ably points out, it just doesn’t sound feasible.  Some observers say organizers should bring in Mitt Romney to replace John Fish.  Romney, they say, turned around the Salt Lake Olympics. But remember, to do it he got a great infusion of post 9/11 emotional  federal dollars.

London is instructive in another way: the Olympics bid fit in with an already designed strategy for rehabilitating an unused 500-acre industrial wasteland at the edge of city limits.  Meaning, irrespective of hosting the Olympics, Boston should be looking at what we want the city to look like in 2030, what are our needs and aspirations. Then, and only then, should we be weighing whether and to what extent this Olympics bid enhances that strategy. What we have now is the tail wagging the dog.

Should these problems derail the bid at this point? It could be an opportunity for a significant planning exercise.  That should have been the original starting point.

If you said to me, we can do this, we guarantee no cost to Massachusetts taxpayers, we will leave you with facilities, sites and infrastructure changes that can be repurposed for ends that we embrace, we will cause glory to rain down on our beloved city worldwide, then perhaps I would say go for it.  We’ve just survived the worst winter in history. Given the right set of circumstances, of course we can survive two and a half weeks of summer inconvenience, and we might have a little fun in the process.

But, without the predicate of a comprehensive and inclusive strategic plan in place, we run the risk that, for the foreseeable future, disproportionate time and energy will be focused on Olympics 2024.  Without the larger plan,  the Olympics project will become the prism through which every other public policy is viewed. Worse, the diversion of public attention could distract from strategic planning for housing, education, health care, and a comprehensive statewide upgrade of transportation.

We need a lot more facts and transparency from Boston 2024 before anyone should give their plan credence and respect. Changing its public relations team won’t change the underlying problems.

Mayor Marty Walsh should continue to step back from his unrestrained boosterism and convene the city’s leading thinkers and ordinary citizens to flesh out a shared Boston 2030 long-term vision and strategy for the city, which  builds on his early-stage 2030 housing and transportation initiatives. Under this scenario, a properly structured Olympics bid could be a helpful accelerant, regardless of the bidding outcome .

I welcome your comments in the section below.



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Can Martin O’Malley take on Hillary?

There’s no doubt that Hillary Clinton will be the most experienced Presidential wannabe in either party – when she announces her candidacy.  But the lead-up to her announcement has been dogged by missteps and reminders of why people don’t want the Clintons back in the White House. Her baggage piles up every week.  While most of her supporters would prefer a cakewalk, some concede she’d be strengthened by having primary opposition.  But who should it be?

Martin O'MalleyGovernor Martin O’Malley came to New Hampshire on Tuesday to speak to the New England Council and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics. The two-term Maryland governor and former Baltimore mayor is gearing up to run. He is attractive, affable, and has a noteworthy record in 15 years of executive experience. In theory, this past chair of the Democratic Governors Association could be a liberal alternative to Hillary.   (He is also a Bruce Springsteen fan and plays in a Celtic rock band.)

He is good on all the hot-button progressive issues. He supported gay marriage early on and led a successful fight to provide in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. He was one of the first public executives to implement data-driven strategies, whether the problem was drug abuse, crime, trash collection or fixing potholes.  Under his leadership, Maryland passed a living wage law, raised the minimum wage, expanded the prevailing wage and made Maryland #1 in the level of the median wage. He has actually gotten gun control measures through his state legislature. Under his leadership, the state’s fiscal practices garnered AAA bond ratings, and five times was voted #1 by Education Week in improving education. In 2013, the Washington Monthly called him “the best manager working in government today.” (The National Journal has a comprehensive piece on O’Malley that’s well worth a read.)

He focuses on issues of economic justice and the widening income gap in the United States.  His themes are those of Elizabeth Warren, without the intensity of passion. O’Malley favors the return of the bank-regulating Glass-Steagall law, and bemoans the power of special interest groups (who, he claims, wholly own the Republican Party,  overlooking their undue influence on the Democrats as well)).

Despite O’Malley’s recession-period fiscal reforms, The National Review finds his politics anathema and says his tax policy drove business out of Maryland.  The Maryland electorate seemed to repudiate O’Malley’s administration when it upset his own lieutenant governor, turning to the Republican challenger in the race to succeed O’Malley.

There’s a deep-rooted optimism in O’Malley, his message one of strength through comity. His mantra, “We’re all in this together.”  He has made a point that leadership of this country shouldn’t just be passed back and forth between two families. But he has a lot of work to do if he is to be a viable alternative to Hillary. That work should start with getting smarter about foreign policy. During his meet-and-greet, he said he’s talking to would-be advisers but couldn’t yet reveal their names.

When I asked him about the ongoing negotiations of a nuclear Iran, he skated across the surface of the issue. Despite his having made nine foreign trips as governor, Hillary would have him for lunch if he debated her today on anything but economic justice and moneyed interests.

Some speculate that he’s just putting himself forward to be her vice-presidential running mate.  But it’s useful to remember that a one-term governor and peanut farmer from Georgia got elected President a generation ago. And more recently a two-term governor of Arkansas, nearly as low in the polls at this stage of the campaign in 1991, became a two-term President. Stranger things have happened.

As John Cassidy writes in The New Yorker, as Hillary’s bad press continues, we shouldn’t underestimate the potential growth of Clinton fatigue.  I’m glad O’Malley is considering the race and hope he develops the gravitas to make the 2016 primary a robust one. No one benefits from a coronation.

I welcome your comments in the section below.


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Dirty little secret about hopes for Israel/ Palestine peace


So Benjamin Netanyahu shamelessly and successfully pandered to Israeli right-wing voters in Tuesday’s election. A politician playing to base emotions and lying to get elected, then changing  positions again. How unusual. The hard Right is pleased by his victory and so is the hard Left. And so, too, Israelis and Palestinians who don’t believe the so-called peace process, indefinitely in limbo, is likely to achieve anything of value.

map of IsraelBibi’s for  a two-state solution. He’s against  a two-state solution. He’s for it again.  He insists his position is unchanged, but circumstances have changed. The Obama Administration is angry. The Israelis are disdainful. The bipartisan special American-Israeli relationship is seriously damaged. Hamas and Fatah are at each other’s throats.  The UN may get more involved. It’s time for threats. It’s time for face-saving moves. So what?  At this point, it all seems to be rhetorical gamesmanship and manipulation of symbols.

The dirty little secret is that,  for the foreseeable future and maybe forever, there is no viable two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine problem. It’s a zero sum game. Both believe that God has given the same sacred land to their peoples, and the perceived risks are too great for either side to make painful compromises. Both can say with justification there’s no serious partner for peace on the other side.

For two decades, political leaders and people of good will have paid at least lip service to the vision of two entities, living side by side in peace. Some have even worked hard to bring about such an objective.  But, if it had been possible, is it not reasonable to think that it would have been achieved by now?

Oslo, Madrid, Wye River didn’t lead to peace agreements. And the unilateral disengagement from Gaza led to terrorism and more violence. The neighborhood now is much more volatile than 20 plus years ago.

Put aside questions of final borders, water access, rights of return, status of Jerusalem, and the lack of a common Palestinian voice able to bind decisions authoritatively.  A single Palestinian state, split in two between Gaza and the West Bank, like West and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) once were, would likely have difficulty flourishing economically without massive and sustained outside support.  It could find itself far more dependent on Israel for trade and jobs than it (or the Israelis) would like.  And how would the two Palestinian entities be linked physically (with what security)? Would Palestinian independence, after all the safeguards are imposed,  be a hollow fiction?

Obviously, such a Palestinian state would need to be demilitarized, but for how long? Forever? Even if demilitarized, how could such a state enforce a peace agreement? Many Palestinians would still have long-term irredentist claims to all of Israel.  Rockets could easily reach airports and population centers.  Terrorist tunnels could be dug with impunity. And now, with Iran and its surrogates, and ISIS and its allies spreading their violence throughout the region, it’s doubtful any security deal would be acceptable to the Israelis. And, given the long-term power of demographics and the growth of a free Arab population within a democratic Israel, even an alternative one-state solution would be unacceptable long term to advocates of a “Jewish state.”

The current unilateral expansion of Israeli settlements  continues to make even more remote a negotiated resolution, and the emergence of a safe and prosperous Palestine stillborn.  But the indefinite continuation of  the status quo with no hope for better circumstances is untenable. It will lead to increased international isolation  of Israel and more painful second-class conditions for Palestinians.

Given the failure of the parties to negotiate successfully between themselves, it’s natural to consider looking to others for help.  But efforts to  impose a solution from the UN or outside groups  could make matters worse. If the United States were to cease its role as Israel’s bulwark and sacrifice it diplomatically, the US  could theoretically  open up strategic opportunities for itself  regionally. But that would risk of  ending the founding vision of Israel and would roil domestic American politics for years to come.

Politicians, academicians, pundits and bloviators all pretend there is a viable solution. Some even claim to have answers.  But I, for one, am less certain than I’ve ever been.

I welcome your comments in the section below.


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