George H. W. Bush benefits from Trump comparison

When we mourn the passing of former President George H. W. Bush, we are mourning the passing of an era, a time when public service was an honor,  military service was an important component, when politicians would reverse their positions if they deemed it important for the country despite its impact on their own careers. We honor the 41st President’s civility, humility, self-deprecating humor and authenticity as a devoted family man. We bemoan the absence of such characteristics in the current resident of the White House.

But these admirable qualities are not all there is to say about George Herbert Walker Bush. His resume probably made him one of the best prepared men ever to serve as President.  Following distinguished military service during WW II, “41” ran an oil company, served in Congress, ran the Central Intelligence Agency, was ambassador to China and vice president under Ronald Reagan. He was at the center of a powerful network cutting across the banking, oil and intelligence worlds.

He presided with a steady hand over the transition to a post-Cold War World, helped shape the reunification of Germany and, in Desert Storm, showed how to build an international alliance to stop aggressor nations. He signed the Americans with Disability Act and created his Thousand Points of Light Foundation to encourage volunteerism. But whenever I think of the 41st President, I am also reminded that he named Clarence Thomas to the U. S. Supreme Court. And his 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis succeeded with the blatantly racist and infamous Willie Horton ad. Even sinister Bush strategist Lee Atwater, as he neared death, apologized for that.  As far as I know, Bush never did.

My principal personal contact with him was on the Judy Jarvis television show in 1980, when Bush was running in the GOP presidential primary against Ronald Reagan. Bush had been pro-choice prior to his run and supported Planned Parenthood, but did a 180 to keep pace with Reagan.  I pressed him on his reversal; he danced around it, then got hot under the collar.  Eight years later, he was his party’s standard bearer and, I was told, was still angry with me. His abortion reversal was not unlike his later politically expedient willingness to support President Reagan’s tax cut, which he had earlier correctly decried as “voodoo economics.” By contrast, when he reversed the “Read my lips; no new taxes” pledge he ran on in 1988, he did it for the good of the country even though it hurt his reelection bid in 1992.  In that reversal , he was a statesman.

All these contradictions underline that George H.W. Bush was, like most of us, an imperfect nuanced human being, and today we remember and revere his better angels, those “kinder and gentler” characteristics so sorely missed on the national scene today. RIP George Herbert Walker Bush, 41st President of the United States.

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Changing leadership with Pelosi at the helm

Congressional leadership of the Democratic Party is going to change. It’s not a question of whether but how and when.  Despite the best efforts of North Shore Congressman Seth Moulton, who is spearheading the movement to depose former and probably future Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, she won overwhelming support of the Democratic caucus, with 203 voting for her, 32 voting no, and three blanking the race.  The final vote will be on the House floor in January, and much of the Democratic Party agenda depends on her ability to hold the party together and use her not inconsiderable leadership skills to restore the balance of power in Washington.

The 78-year-old Congresswoman has led the party since 2002. We can argue that objections to Pelosi are exacerbated because many people still object to “strong women.” There is a bias despite the fact that she has been an extraordinary leader, incomparable fund raiser, and the single most important person in getting the Affordable Care Act passed (It should be called PelosiCare more than ObamaCare.) She is also expected to play a key role in preserving it, especially protections to restricted coverage of pre-existing conditions.

But her top leadership team are also “of a certain age.”   (Some highly qualified legislators have left the House because they saw no path to upward mobility.)  She’ll need 218 votes of the House, if everyone votes. If Democrats in tight races who pledged to oppose her and voted against her in the caucus simply vote present in January, she’ll need fewer votes.

So far, Moulton has been unable to outplay Pelosi strategically. He couldn’t even find someone to run against her.  She shrewdly gave Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, whom Moulton had urged to mount the challenge,  chairmanship of a new subcommittee on voting reform.  It’s an important responsibility, at which Judge should do well.  There are other younger Reps whom Pelosi is moving up.

Moulton seems disinclined to run for Speaker himself, perhaps (when not courting Presidential buzz) preferring to position himself to run against Senator Ed Markey in 2020.  He supported a national network of veterans running for office, and clearly demonstrates he has an eye on a larger future. One hopes he hasn’t so ticked off Pelosi that it will reduce his effectiveness in Congress for the next two years. That would be bad for Massachusetts.  Moulton has been an outspoken proponent of the North-South rail link underneath Boston, connecting North Station with South Station, and linking Maine with destinations along the east coast.  Like the Big Dig, it can’t be built without significant federal support, something that would have been easier to achieve if Ayanna Pressley hadn’t defeated Michael Capuano, positioned to become chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure in the next Congress.  Now, Moulton might not even get Capuano’s seat on the committee.

He has drawn criticism for spearheading the opposition to Pelosi, but let’s give him credit for pressing the reform issue.  New rules are in the offing, giving more opportunities for bipartisanship, requiring hearings on bills, taking testimony, moving proposals through the process and actually holding votes.  He was independent and brave, but he seems to have gravely miscalculated Pelosi’s strength and the dangers of achieving a Pyrrhic victory.  Now he hints he’d back off if she publicly gives a date certain for stepping down.  Though she speaks of being a transitional Speaker, she has not given a firm date – and with good reason.

Once Paul Ryan announced he’d step down at the end of this term, he became a lame duck Speaker of the US House of Representatives, unable to advance a productive agenda.  Nancy Pelosi is working hard to avoid becoming irrelevant. One problem is the Democrats who tipped marginal districts blue and have pledged not to vote for Pelosi for Speaker.  They should be given breathing space to honor their pledge to constituents, lest they lose their districts in 2020. But, if Democrats coming from safe districts also insist on toppling the Speaker, digging in their heels and  sowing discord, it could be a blown opportunity to turn things around in Washington. The intra-party bloodbath could be dangerous now through 2020.

The insurgents should consider the move by MA Congressman Steve Lynch, one of the 16 signatories to a Moulton-inspired letter opposing Pelosi.  Notwithstanding his friendship with fellow signatory Tim Ryan of Ohio, Lynch has recently said he will not, in fact, oppose Pelosi. Doubtless he doesn’t want the kind of chaos created by the Freedom Party when it toppled Republican Speaker John Boehner. Watch Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter and similar Pelosi “no” votes  work behind the scenes in a not-readily transparent strategy to effect a quiet transition plan with consequences for failure to honor it.

Without a rigid exit plan,  Pelosi can remain effective while laying the groundwork for the younger generation, providing them opportunities to show what they’re capable of.  Too little attention has been paid to building a bench, in effect the bridge to the future.  More than anyone in the House at this time, Pelosi has a chance to break gridlock around immigration, health care, infrastructure and other policy changes while restoring the balance of power in Washington and holding the President accountable for his stewardship, or lack thereof.   It seems a deal worth making.

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Hillary 4.0? Spare us, please!

Her emails are coming more frequently, especially in the wake of the midterm election. She is doing more interviews and being coy about whether there is another Presidential bid in her life. And before 2018 ballot counts were complete, an op ed in the Wall Street Journal  by Mark Penn, for 13 years a Clinton pollster and adviser made it clear that yet another Hillary Clinton candidacy is a likelihood. She ba-ack!

I was a huge fan of Hillary Clinton, partly Wellesley College pride in the highly accomplished woman uniquely prepared for the nation’s highest office and partly because she is smart, experienced, worldly, visionary and strong. I’ve seen her charisma in person though it rarely comes through on television. She is funny and warm, though that isn’t always clear. But she was a terribly flawed candidate.  The finances of the Clinton Foundation, the sources of their donations, were uncomfortably squirrelly. She had a tin ear (need I say more than “basket of deplorables?”).  She was elitist and spoke in such a lawyer-like manner it seemed she had much to hide.

PBS analyst Mark Shields has put numbers on how disliked Hillary is.  After the 2008 race, Obama’s  favorability was 57 %; John McCain was viewed favorably by 54% by voters . ..meaning both party standard-bearers were viewed favorably by a majority of the American people.  After the 2016 election, Donald Trump was viewed favorably by 41 percent of the American people; 55 percent viewed him unfavorably.  Hillary’s favorability was also 41 percent, and 56 percent viewed her unfavorably.  In other words, said Shields at a recent meeting of the New England Council, Donald Trump running against himself would have lost. The only reason he won was that he was running against Hillary Clinton.

As a partial explanation of the 2016 outcome, Shields went on to quote entertainer and sex symbol Mae West:  “If forced to choose between two evils, I’d rather the one I haven’t tried yet.”

And then there was Bill, he of the ill-considered private meeting on the tarmac in Phoenix with Attorney General Loretta Lynch.  Or the murky  ethics of the Clintons in raising money for their foundation.  And then there was his sexual relationship with young  intern Monica Lewinsky. Hillary is still defending her husband’s behavior as between two consenting adults and refuses to publicly acknowledge his wrongdoing.  Voter revulsion at returning Bill to the White House played a role in costing her the Presidency.

Would I prefer HRC to the incumbent in the White House?  You bet.  And yes, she did decisively win the popular vote in 2016, and she could have been a terrific President. But Hillary’s negatives remain as high as Donald Trump’s. The Clintons need to go away, or at least be quiet.  They have successfully monetized their years in politics.  Their minions still adore them and are willing to shell out more cash to attend the Clintons’ high-priced speaking tour across the country. Enough.  The Former Firsts should settle back, enjoy their grandchildren, and not drag their weighty baggage into the 2020 campaign to rid the country of the scourge that is Donald Trump.

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Dems win House: Divided We Stand

For two years, those turned off by Donald Trump and Republicans’ acquiescence to him have strategized to take back the House of Representatives and even, against great odds, the Senate. A great many worked to make that happen, sending checks out of state, working phone banks, talking up new candidates. Last night, that goal was realized for the House.  Finally, we have taken a step toward holding the President and his minions accountable.

In the days leading up to the midterm election, some of us in “the bubble” allowed ourselves to believe that the Democrats could pull out a win in the Senate. But that was not to be.  Give the President  full credit for bolstering his base in red states, by telling whatever lies and stoking whatever fears seemed necessary at the time. Nine of 11 candidates he rallied with in the week before the election won.  His strategy worked in Indiana, Missouri, Tennessee and North Dakota.  He still retained the strong loyalty of white males, especially those without college education, and rural voters, while driving away independents and college-educated suburban women who had helped elect him in 2016.  Can he win a second term in 2020 just playing to his base?  The structure of the electoral college means that millions of anti-Trump popular votes could be wasted. Democrats have their work cut out for them.

Marquee Democrats like Florida’s Andrew Gillum, Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and Texas’ Beto O’Rourke looked to be pulling ahead just before the polls opened.  Some observers drank the kool-aid, only to be disappointed this morning. Those emerging stars lost by significantly less than the margin of error.  That they and others came close in red states could augur well for the future. But losing now is still losing and, in the case of governors, will hurt with 2021 redistricting.

There are plenty of disturbing notes.  Race baiting and well funded big lies still work.  The stench of Jim Crow voter suppression is alive in Georgia and elsewhere. Swamp draining and corruption don’t seem to matter despite GOP law-and-order slogans. Republicans easily reelected California’s Duncan Hunter and New York’s Chris Collins, both of whom are under indictment (misuse of campaign funds and felony insider trading, respectively). Trump, who at his press conference today, said he had no regrets regarding campaign tactics, including endorsing a xenophobic and racist political ad that even Fox rejected. He wholeheartedly supported the shamelessly racist and re-elected Iowa Cong. Steve King.

The good news is that a record number of diverse and highly qualified women were elected to the House, though they still hold fewer than a quarter of the seats. Hillary Clinton didn’t win white college-educated voters in 2016; she was rightly pilloried for describing some Trump supporters as “a basket of deplorables.” For many reasons, large numbers of white suburban women opposed returning the Clintons to the White House. This time, significant numbers of those same women voted Democrat.  This group must be part of any realignment, but the nation remains toxically divided, and the Democrats failed to make inroads to other parts of the Trump coalition.

Despite regaining control of the House, Democrats are far from holding a decisive balance of power.  Doing better than expected in certain Senate races is not the same as winning. By losing seats in  the Senate,  Democrats leave approval of judiciary appointees in the hands of Senate Republicans and the President, who, following recommendations of the Federalist Society, are remaking the courts in their own hard-right image. It is they who may have the last word on presidential accountability, voting rights, reproductive rights, consumer issues, environmental and safety regulations and more. We will be dealing with that for generations to come.

The answer right now is for Democrats, independents and moderate Republicans to fashion a bipartisan program of incremental improvements to the health care system, which was a driving force in many House races,  shape a real drain-the-swamp clean government program and deal with our crumbling infrastructure.  But they can’t stop there.  The challenge since 2016 has been reaching out and winning over some of the nearly 50 percent of voters who, sad to say, have no buyer’s remorse concerning Trump and still feel he speaks for them.

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Pre-midterm jitters

With no Red Sox diversion, tomorrow’s midterms have produced difficulty sleeping and stress eating.  Even the daily comics are filled with reminders of what hangs in the balance.  If the Republicans lose the House, Donald Trump will say the outcome wasn’t about him. But this midterm is the first national referendum on the President and on what we want the character of this country to be.

At every rally where he has taken his mendacious, racist, misogynist, divisive fear-mongering rants, he has said, “A vote for [name the Republican candidate] is a vote for me.”  And it surely is. It is also about access to health care, and about reasonable immigration policy and strength from diversity.  It is about the economy, the power of the corporations, and income inequality.  It’s about whether the United States should continue to be the leader of the free world, committed to building global alliances, to avoid problem solving by wars. It is no less about creating racial and religious equality, respect for women, access for the disabled.  It’s about whether our First Amendment implies a free press or whether the media are the enemy of the people.  Most of all, it’s about our capacity for civil discourse irrespective of our differences on a range of policy matters.

Right now, I’m guardedly optimistic about the House changing hands. The Senate remains a heavy lift, though recent polls are increasingly upbeat about some key Senate races. That said, we mustn’t forget the wrong-headed 2016 polls and what NBC’s Chuck Todd calls the errors of “the national smarty-pants people.”  Remember, Clinton’s 2016 electoral college loss was “margin-of-error” predictable.

That leaves us back to worrying about whether the millennials and minorities will vote in substantially greater numbers than they have before, whether the bad weather forecast for huge swaths of the country will deter their participation, and whether last-minute dirty tricks by one candidate or another (especially secretaries of state in Georgia and Kansas) will further suppress the vote and skew the outcome.

With so much at stake and so many races neck and neck, tomorrow promises to be a late night.  Optimally, it will be an outcome worth staying up late for.

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Under Trump, hate has been mainstreamed

Words fail to capture adequately the shock and aching sadness at yesterday’s slaughter of 11 and wounding of others Saturday morning at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. The randomness of the target selected – it could easily have been a synagogue in Newton, MA, Shaker Heights, OH, Highland Park, IL, Atlanta or Houston – intensifies the impact of domestic terrorism.

But we shouldn’t be surprised.  In varying degrees, anti-Semitism  has always been virtually everywhere, but today, given how divided the American people are and the toxic leadership that plays to those animosities, coddling viewpoints once considered fringe, the hatreds – and not just toward Jews – are front and center.

The Center for American Progress is among the many organizations noting an increase in violent  anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, anti-racial minority incidents since Donald Trump took office. Over the last two years, documented hate crimes have doubled, half of them targeting Jews. Anti-Semitic incidents rose 57 percent in 2017 (the increase over 2016 the largest in nearly 40 years) and have continued apace in 2018.  A 250 percent increase in white supremacist activity has also been reported.

Remember President Trump’s comments after the violence at the Charlottesville VA Unite the Right rally organized by neo-Nazis and white supremacists: “there are good people on both sides.” White racist extremists , on websites like the Daily Stormer and Gab, celebrate daily the President’s dog whistles as validation of their views.  And the President reinforces their sentiments when his initial response to the Pittsburgh shooting was to blame the victim, as in, if the synagogue had had armed guards, it wouldn’t have been so bad.

Obviously, President Trump didn’t pull the trigger. It was Pittsburgh resident Robert Bowers, 46, who was quoted yesterday on the need to “kill all the Jews.”  His social media were replete with anti-Semitic rantings and conspiracy theories. In one instance he wrote, “There is no maga as long as there is a kike infestation.”

Bowers showed particular animosity toward HIAS (originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), which has recently been offering assistance to Syrian refugees seeking safety in the United States. He also faulted HIAS for helping immigrants and asylum seekers on our border with Mexico.  To complete the picture, Bowers expressed the belief that Jews, George Soros included, were behind the caravan and the mailing of unexploded bombs for the purposes of influencing the mid-term elections.  This is in line with the tweets of House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (the man whom Trump wants to replace Paul Ryan) and his ilk who warn we can’t let Soros and Bloomberg buy the election.

In times like this, a normal President’s most important roles are to keep us safe, heal and bind us together as a nation. To the contrary, our current President has sought only to solidify his base by fear-mongering and fomenting hatred. When he used a short prepared teleprompter script criticizing anti-Semitism, it looked like a hostage tape, and he carefully avoided any connection with the shooter’s targeting the group for its support of immigrants.

Yes, there have been some Democrats who have taken his cue and bought into the language of assaulting their political opponents. (e.g., Maxine Waters). But this is a false equivalency. Trump’s behavior is of a whole other magnitude. His incendiary and hateful language, in his tweets, offhand comments, and Goebbels-aping “big lies” rallies that have normalized violence and green-lighted the most dangerous behaviors. The Synagogue shooting was just days after passionate Trump supporter Cesar Sayoc of Florida was apprehended for mailing pipe bombs to CNN and 13 Trump critics whom the President had excoriated by name.

Going almost unnoticed by the media this week was a Louisville suburb shooting of two African-Americans in a Kroger store. Minutes before the killing, shooter Gregory Bush had tried to get inside the mostly black First Baptist Church, but it was closed. He, too, has a history of mental illness.

And need we remind ourselves how a majority of our politicians, in craven obedience to the NRA, have failed to keep lethal weapons out of the hands of extremists and deranged individuals whose hatred the President’s rhetoric is inflaming, as one Congressman put it, creating sparks to ignite the gasoline of unstable minds.

In the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, Bowers used an AR-15 rifle and three handguns. Our anguish and despair have been escalating, as if more were even possible, the intensity growing exponentially since 17 were slain on Valentine’s Day at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. Prior to that, there were the 58 deaths in Las Vegas and 49 in Orlando.  Four of the eight most lethal shootings in recent U. S. history have been in the last two years.    Whether obtained legally or illegally, the instruments of mass murder must be effectively regulated.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, whose family fled fascism in Czechoslovakia and the ravages of World War II, has written that the 20th century was a battle between democracy and fascism, with democracy emerging as the clear winner. But its enduring victory is not inevitable. Trump is not Hitler. But his narcissistic need to be the strongman whatever it takes, his blind admiration of the likes of Vladmir Putin, Kim Jong Un, Viktor Orban, Rodrigo Duterte, his epic lying, his lack of empathy, his endorsement of mano-a-mano violence, his fear mongering, is an American manifestation of fascist authoritarian trends gaining  power around the world.

Clearly, the battle between liberal democracy and fascism has been joined again. Sadly, at home there is a growing number of cynical political leaders, some on the ballot this year, who believe they can advance their careers by stoking  the rage of white supremacists, racists and anti-Semites. As has been said at different times and in different ways, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men – and women – to remain silent.

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Can young voters beat back climate change deniers?

We love our iPhones; they’re the result of science. We fly on planes, relying on the underlying science. Our modern society is shaped by science. So why, when 97 percent of scientists concur that the planet is threatened by climate change, and that human beings contribute to the problem, has President Trump called global warming a “hoax,” doubting human impact. To make things worse, on Sixty Minutes, he claimed that scientific evidence should be discounted because scientists “have a political agenda.” As many as 55 percent of Americans seem to agree with him, doubting the scientists.  Could it be that admitting we face a serious threat in our lifetime raises the specter of unpleasant (read: government regulations), lifestyle changes and costly solutions?

Earlier this month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change described the situation as dire.  The message: we’re running out of time.  We have two decades to take significant action. The consequences of failure include sea level rise displacing millions of people, severe droughts, declining crop yields, diminution of marine fisheries, dying off of coral reefs and a variety of other dislocations.

On what might be a bright side, according to a March Gallup poll, the 45 percent of Americans who think that global warming is an immediate serious threat is the highest percentage since the company started asking the question more than 20 years ago. Two different university polls put that percentage as high as 58 percent.  But that movement doesn’t make consensus on action any more likely. Sadly, the issue has become increasingly polarized, with 69 percent of Republicans viewing global warming skeptically and just four percent of Democrats thinking the threat is exaggerated.   

Illinois Cong. Bill Foster

Even if the House and Senate were to go Democratic in November, don’t look for comprehensive solutions to be enacted. Illinois Congressman Bill Foster, a proton physicist/businessman and the only member of the House with a doctorate in science, warns that during the next two years, with Trump still wielding veto power, the battle against global warming will be fought in the courts, with lawsuits against Trump rollbacks of Obama administration policies by the Environmental Protection Agency.  Speaking last week in Brookline, MA, Foster said, “If we can keep the EPA from going forward, it’s the most we can hope for.”  The courts, notably the Supreme Court,  can’t be depended upon however as a backstop. Consider new Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Appeals Court ruling upholding a lower court decision gutting protections against hydrofluorocarbons.

While the clock is ticking, we might only get some incremental changes: action around energy efficiency, more support for clean energy technology (there are more jobs there than in the coal industry), modernizing the energy grid and providing more infrastructure for electric vehicles.  What could also help is that a Democratic majority in the House would at least hold hearings on big-picture proposals like some sort of carbon tax.  They can also reshape the debate by changing the language of global warming, redefining the message in  economic and public health terms.  Crop failure, hurricane damage, asthma, allergies, disease and heatstroke, after all, happen from Kansas to Florida and beyond. The threat is right here, not way off in the Arctic and Antarctic, where the polar ice caps are melting and increases of 1.5 degrees in temperature sound insignificant to people willfully unaware of the underlying science.

In many states, early voting has begun. Today’s news coverage featured college students waiting in line to cast their ballots and speaking of climate change as one of their top issues. But it’s the whole 18-35 year-old cohort who have the most at stake when it comes to climate change. The fate of our planet could well be determined by what they do or fail to do between now and November 6.

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