The State of the Union? Words fail

A scorpion asks a frog to take it across the river. The frog fears the scorpion will sting him. The scorpion talks a good line, saying that, if he did sting the frog, they’d both drown. So, in the spirit of collaboration, the frog consents. Mid-stream, the scorpion does sting the frog.  As they’re going down, the frog asks why. His passenger replies, “because I am a scorpion.”  In other words, that’s who he is. It’s his fundamental nature.

Last night, Donald Trump did say a lot of the right things in his State-of-the-Union address, especially in the first half. “Ready to work with (Congress). “not as two parties but as one nation.”  “not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda. It is the agenda of the American people.” And there were issues he cited with potential to achieve that goal: building a stronger middle class, improving health care, including lowering drug prices and protecting people with pre-existing conditions, addressing HIV AIDS and childhood cancer, and paid parental leave. Could this signal a new era of comity?

The devil, of course, scorpion-like, is in the details.  Trump’s previous infrastructure proposal left 80 percent of the funding for eligible projects to the states, rather than have the federal government finance that percentage.  Contrary to his health care promises, his actions have been geared to dismantling the Affordable Care Act, and under his Presidency fewer Americans are now insured. So we don’t know how many of his bromides will be shaped into meaningful programs and policies.

Underneath the positive talk,  the real Donald Trump was there from the moment he snubbed Speaker Nancy Pelosi by not allowing her to give the Speaker’s traditional introduction of the President.  The real Donald Trump was there in his bombastic twisting of economic accomplishments. He took credit for doubling our economic growth when the surge started under Barack Obama.  African-American unemployment, for example, was down nine percent under Obama and an additional one percent under Trump.  Women’s participation in the workforce has not kept pace with that in other countries and is down here from what it was in April of 2000.  Of the 5.3 million new jobs he said he has created, how many of those are people having to hold down two or even three jobs to make ends meet?

And, summoning up the ghost of Richard Nixon’s “one year of Watergate is enough,” the real Donald Trump denounced the prospect of Congressional oversight as “ridiculous partisan investigations.”  It is not in his nature to appreciate our Constitutional system of checks and balances, which he didn’t have to deal with in his first two years in office when Republicans controlled both house of Congress. Trump was right in saying, “We must choose between greatness or gridlock, results or resistance, vision or vengeance, incredible progress or pointless destruction.” But, clearly, greatness for him is doing things his way. Compromise is alien to his nature.

Most telling was his full-throated recycling of his speech on the border wall, his incendiary language about the invasion by caravans of terrorists, drug dealers and MS-13 gang members threatening the security of our country.  With all the tribute he paid to his guests in the hall, he said not one word about the burdens he thrust on some 800,000 federal workers during the pay-less government shutdown he executed. Chilling also was his two-line distortion of a new New York law that he said “allowed a baby to be ripped from its mother’s womb moments from birth.” In fact, the law provided for abortions beyond 24 weeks if necessary to save the life of the mother or if the fetus is not viable.

This is a President who likes to tear up longstanding treaties and destroy international alliances. Recently turning his back on the Reagan-Gorbachev nuclear arms agreement signals a return to the Cold War arms race. Not once did he mention the issue of climate change, arguably the greatest long-term threat to our national security.

Until Woodrow Wilson presented his annual message to Congress in person in 1913, all previous Presidents had reported on the state of the union in writing.  Would that Trump had proceeded in that way.  But now he has spoken, and we have listened.  The copies of his 82-minute-long presentation will end up in the shredder along with all his other exaggerations, lies, misrepresentations, hyperbole and false promises. And that’s just where they belong.

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Climate change is real, Mr. President

photo Vox.com

As the polar vortex is about to recede, for now, we’re still stupefied by our esteemed President. He, who considers himself the smartest man in the world, recently tweeted, “What the hell is going on with Global Warming? Please come back fast, we need you!”

But less stupid individuals than he are puzzled about how we can have record-breaking cold in an era of global warming.  The answer is found in the difference between weather, a short-term phenomenon, and climate, comprising averages that trend over time.

Temperatures in a wide swath of the country have been in the minus 20’s with wind chill reaching down into the minus 50’s.  The reason? Warming trends have split the polar vortex, a system of cold air and wind over the North Pole, and that has changed the pattern of the jet stream, pushing beyond-frigid temperatures further and further south. Chicago was colder than Antarctica. Scores of people have gone to hospitals with hypothermia.  Schools and businesses have been closed. Transportation systems have been challenged. People have died.

Climate change is causing extreme weather events year-round, warmer sometimes than it should be, colder at other times, with more frequent and severe hurricanes, increasing severity of droughts, cold waves and wildfires.  While this part of the world is experiencing record-breaking cold, Australia is struggling with record-breaking temperatures of 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

Trump, who gives The Wharton School a bad name, sometimes moves from denying climate change to denying the role of humanity in spurring it. Virtually all scientists (97 percent of scientists, according to NASA and other studies) agree that human activity, especially reliance on fossil fuels, is a significant factor. When the President grudgingly acknowledges the existence of climate change, he says, contrary to many studies, that fixing the problem would cost too many jobs. And, when he denies human beings’ roles, he asserts it’s a Chinese fiction designed to slow our economy.

Many of the three percent of studies denying a human role in climate change were financed by “dirty” companies with a financial stake in preserving the status quo.  Other opponents of remedial action simply oppose any government regulation.

Trump has pulled the United States out of the voluntary international commitment to a shared timetable for lowering carbon emissions, and his appointees at the Environmental Protection Agency and elsewhere, many with links to the fossil fuel industry, are doing their level best to gut green laws and regulations.

Meanwhile, Democrats spout the slogan of a “Green New Deal,”  but what that means beyond a piece here or there is anyone’s guess.  In a divided Congress, with a climate denier in the White House making anti-regulatory appointments to the federal judiciary, prospects for a comprehensive approach are bleak. There’s little incentive in an election season to push for a carbon tax or any other approach that necessitates serious changes in behavior.  And we’re always in an election season. My generation can roll with the inaction, but, for our kids and grandkids, climate change is an existential threat – which means that the stakes of the 2020 election are higher than they’ve ever been. Young people, who somewhat increased participation in the 2018 election, must get even more organized and vote their futures.

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Banning hand-held cellphones, finally?

I continue to be shocked by the extreme road rage exhibited Friday on the Mass. Pike by Mark Paul Fitzgerald, 37, of Ashland, and Richard Kamrowski, a 65-year-old Framingham man . After a side-swiping encounter, after which SUV driver Fitzgerald refused to exchange information with Kamrowski, the older man grabbed a water bottle from Fitzgerald’s passenger seat and stood in front of the SUV to prevent his driving away.  When Fitzgerald kept driving forward, Kamrowski leaped on the hood of the SUV and hung on for more than two miles while Fitzgerald reportedly drove as fast as seventy miles per hour.  Only alert fellow motorists stopped the insanity from becoming tragedy.  Absurd behavior? Yes. Contemptible? That, too.

But I confess I taste a bit of road rage myself on the numerous occasions when I have been cut off by drivers using their hand-held cell phones. The woman ignoring the Yield sign, her view of my car obstructed because her left elbow was on the window edge and her hand held her cell phone to her left ear. A rapidly moving bakery truck that nearly ran me off the road in the same kind of situation. The young Natick man in an SUV who rear-ended my husband and me on Route 9 because, as he laughingly admitted, his eyes and hand were focused on his electronics.

To be sure, the issue is distracted driving more broadly: distractions like putting on lipstick, changing clothes, sipping hot coffee, checking the kids in the back seat, even consulting a GPS. But inability to eliminate all distractions shouldn’t keep us from controlling a few that would make a real difference in our safety.

Twice the state Senate has voted to ban hand-held cellphones. Twice it died in the House due to indifference or House Speaker Bob DeLeo’s concern that it would lead to racial profiling.

Would the police would pull over disproportionate numbers of minorities, using the ban to do more invasive searches for which there is no probable cause?  Three years ago, a Boston Globe analysis found minority status of drivers cited for texting while driving mirrored the state’s demographics.  Similar analyses could be required as part of a cellphone ban law.

Back then, Governor Charlies Baker was cool to the idea. Still the nation’s most popular governor, Charlie Baker now has finally decided to spend some of his political capital   for good but controversial causes. At the beginning of his second term, he proposes new taxes on real estate transfers, opioid manufacturers, and e-cigarettes. He commits to reshaping foundation funding for education. And, yes, he is pushing for a ban on hand-held cellphone use, something already implemented by 16 states and the District of Columbia. 

As Baker goes to the legislature today to testify for the bill, the Speaker remains to be persuaded. A February 2018 poll released by MassINC revealed that 79 percent of Massachusetts residents support a ban on the use of hand-held cell phones, with an exception for emergencies. Only 16 percent opposed.  To me, it’s a no-brainer. Drivers using hand-held cellphones are more than a prompt for road rage. They are a recipe for tragedy.

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Cong. Lori Trahan: up close and personable

Newly elected Massachusetts 3rd district Congresswoman Lori Trahan has a warm smile and comes across as intelligent, charming, and poised.  As a former chief of staff to Congressman Marty Meehan, Trahan also brings a dimension of Capitol Hill experience not typical of your usual breathless freshman Congressperson.  She spoke yesterday for the first time to The New England Council, the region’s leading business-oriented organization.

Trahan succeeds Congresswoman Niki Tsongas in the House of Representatives and in a much-coveted seat on the Armed Services Committee, with jurisdiction over national defense and cyber security. This is of no small interest to the Massachusetts companies large and small that do business with the federal government. The military impact on this state is significant, contributing $13 billion a year to the state economy and supporting some 60,000 jobs.

Trahan says she is committed to helping young people develop the technical, analytic and social skills to benefit from the opportunities generated.  This means encouraging collaboration between community colleges and corporations to prepare students for the proverbial good jobs at good wages, but also addressing the ever-burgeoning student debt load (an aggregate $1.5 trillion in debt), which has tripled since the Great Recession.

Right now, however, the focus in Washington is the impasse between the President and Democrats over Donald Trump’s holding hostage some 800,000 furloughed government workers to leverage Democratic approval of his $5.7 billion demand for  a wall on the Mexican border. I asked Trahan whether differences among newly elected Democrats, some 40 of whom tipped Republican districts blue, and Democrats from safe seats where they are free to take more aggressive left-wing positions could weaken the strategy for dealing with the President.  For Trahan, “The more diversity, the better the outcome.” But, quoting Nancy Pelosi, Trahan noted that “diversity is our strength, but our unity is our power.”

Trahan’s life story comprises a range of experiences that make her relatable, starting with federal workers struggling to survive during the government shutdown. Her father was an iron worker and her mother, a domestic. Her family lived paycheck to paycheck.Her grandparents were immigrants, and she was the first in her family to graduate from college, which she attended thanks to a volleyball scholarship. After graduating, she worked in government but moved into the private sector, where she worked for a marketing software company and then led a small, women-owned consulting firm. She said she was inspired to run for Congress by her two daughters – Grace, 8 years old, and Caroline, who proudly tells all she is precisely 4 3/4 –  for whom she wanted to set an example.

As Trahan returns to Washington for her first meeting of the Armed Services Committee, she conveys seriousness of purpose and readiness for the challenges ahead.  Despite this  newcomer’s being listed as 427th in seniority, Lori Trahan is, as pundits like to say, one to watch.

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Walsh’s “State-of-the-City”: a clarion call

If you want to hear everything our national government now is not, listen to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s state-of-the-city address.  In a rousing half-hour speech at Symphony Hall, he credibly held out Boston as a model to be emulated nationally. It was a spirited reminder of how pathetically the federal government is failing to meet most of the challenges the nation is facing.  It was a welcome chronicling of ills that face our nation that Boston is doing something about.

Walsh cited Boston’s accomplishments in creating economic opportunity and jobs (a 2.4 percent unemployment rate in the city), developing affordable housing, reducing crime, addressing climate change, stemming opioid addiction, investing in education and expanding diversity.  And, if you think that recounting is merely aspirational, that there is much more to do, so, too, does the mayor, who doubled down on his commitments to social progress and middle class opportunity.

The point is: these values are precisely those that have gone dark in the Trump administration. Boston alone can’t  end global warming, but it is developing a  resilience plan to deal with rising sea levels. Racism abides here as elsewhere, but there’s now an Office of Diversity, new representation of minorities in the political hierarchy, a first-ever African-American police commissioner, and a commitment to tackle the lack of diversity in the city’s fire department. The NAACP is reportedly considering Boston for its 2020 convention.

While our crime rate has gone down, the murder rate has not, but perhaps some of Walsh’s social justice and economic initiatives will ultimately be reflected in an improvement there.  While major investments have been made in school structures, there’s still a performance gap for minority students.  Walsh is making his case at the State House for better education funding and better ways to expand housing. When in the last two years were any of these policies even discussed in Washington, much less achieved?

As they say on Jersey Street, “Mahty” hit it out of the park!  Unlike his stiff presentations upon taking office, he was really into this speech, his delivery polished, his cadence natural, his emphasis authentic. At the end, he told his pumped-up audience that he and Republican Governor Charlie Baker would be going together to Washington to ask for help in housing, transit, and the environment.  As he put it, “Instead of building a wall, let’s show them how to build bridges.”

The ending was a triumph: “If you want to learn how to bring people together, not push them apart, look to Boston. If you want to grow good jobs and rebuild the middle class, look to Boston. If you want to see how social justice strengthens all of us, look to Boston. If you want to cut crime, protect the environment, lift Americans up and leave no one behind, build a more perfect union? Then look to the city of hope and heart. Look to the city of courage and champions. At a time when cities must lead, look to Boston, the leader of cities.”  The electricity in Symphony Hall was palpable, even for those watching from home.  We know good things aren’t happening in Washington. But surely it’s not naive to be reassured that, in a different way, they are happening in Boston and other leading cities nationwide.

When Massachusetts residents traveling cross-country or abroad are asked where they are from, they typically answer Boston, not Wayland or Swansea or Fall River. And that makes sense. Many of Boston’s challenges are still works in progress, but this is a progression in which we can take legitimate pride, and that’s just as it should be.

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Getting beyond the wall

It’s motif  #1, the President bragging about having the biggest, being the smartest, (“I alone can fix it,”), master negotiator and  uber deal maker.  We can dispute his hyperbolic claims, but we all can agree that under his leadership Americans now  have the longest-lasting (partial) government shutdown in our  nation’s history.  800,000 government workers and countless others dependent on their services are collateral damage. But for what?

They’re hostages in an extortion plot for $5 billion to pander to his anti-immigration base, fulfilling a leading campaign promise. We know from blackmailers and protection racketeers that this would likely not be a one-time deal. Estimates to build the wall as high as Trump envisioned are in the $30 billion range. So, there could be another shutdown-shakedown next year.   He hasn’t even spent the funds Congress authorized for border security last year, and nor specified in detail what this $5.7  billion would be used for.

National emergency? It wasn’t for the past two years when Republicans controlled both Houses of Congress. And current plans don’t call for full implementation of his emergency proposals for years.

Trump would rather sustain his manufactured crisis, keep his anti-immigrant scare tactics alive to whip up and distract his supporters than solve real problems.  He continues to lie about real border security issues.

For every cherry-picked example of illegal-immigrant violence, there are multiple horror stories where the perps are long-time citizens. The crime rate among non-legal immigrants is consistently lower than among the general population.

Steel barriers, the alternative to his concrete wall, were not, as he claims, a Democrat request, and NBC illustrated that one of his vaunted steel slat prototypes can be cut with Home Depot purchased tools. Trump appears to have ignored evidence of the sophisticated tunnels created by El Chapo and other Mexican drug lords to bring drugs into the US at depths far below the pilings of any wall or fence proposals. So, too, would the barriers not block drones and similar technologies designed to go over them. Contrary to Trump, most illegal drugs come into the country through legal points of entry, and some of the most dangerous opioids are flow in from China.  If the President is really serious about the impact of drugs coming in from Mexico, what is his policy to cut US demand for the product?

Children smuggled by so-called coyotes and forced to enter are fewer than the one percent of family apprehensions, and illegal immigration at the southern border is at a 14-year low. A far greater potential problem is the number of visitors why fly into the US lawfully and overstay their visas. Canadians lead the world in US visa overstays.

There are legitimate needs for fixed security barriers along the southern border, and some of the fencing already there needs repair. But most of the border between US and Mexico is the Rio Grande and hundreds of miles east of San Diego Tijuana are mountains. It’s unclear to what extent the administration has considered the myriad legal, cultural, agricultural and environmental issues in establishing a full border barrier. Texas property owners are still litigating eminent domain lawsuits against Obama-era border security moves. If Trump stumbles forward here, and makes things worse by reallocating post-Harvey flood remediation funds, he could turn Texas blue faster than Beto O’Rourke can.

So, what to do?  Trump is digging in, fearing that this is his “read my lips, no new taxes” moment, an existential threat to his re-election. For new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi this is also a defining moment. Neither wants to back down. The ball is in the court of Senate Republicans. They can go big or go small. Going big means to make it a Nixon-goes-to- China moment and put forward a bipartisan immigration bill, including enhanced border security, a DACA deal and other provisions supported by most members.  Or they can go small, just keep the government open with continuing resolutions and continue to fight.

Either way, the President has more options than just signing something he abhors or vetoing the bill and challenging the Congress to override. He can do what other Presidents have done when faced with important legislation that included elements they couldn’t abide. Use Article 1 Section 7, and let it become law after ten days on his desk without his signature. But to get to this point Mitch McConnell will have to be more statesman than partisan hack.  Anyone taking bets?

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Elizabeth Warren: U.S. President or Massachusetts Senator?

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s first televised interview as a nearly announced presidential candidate was with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.  The interaction was about as challenging as a Donald Trump interview with Sean Hannity.  From there, she went on to Iowa, where the questions got a little bit tougher and are just a foretaste of what she will have to confront going forward.

There is no doubt that Warren’s populist message should resonate, even among some Obama voters-turned-Trump Republicans.  She is smart and accomplished: witness her role in creating the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. She is courageous, a stand-up leader, and in tune with values that need more effective champions in the public arena. So what is that “something about Elizabeth” that turns some people off?

There’s still a lot of misogyny in the world.  #MeToo is a movement, not a majority. A female candidate must be strong, but not castrating. She must be bold, but not divisive.  She must be feminine, but not shrill. You get the idea.  Despite the encouraging success of female candidates in 2018, this tricky challenge still confronts virtually any woman who aspires to the nation’s highest offices.

Many who like Warren’s populist economic message nonetheless see her style of messaging as that of a liberal school marm. Others have called her a “scold,”  which sociologists have long taken as a proxy for gender bias. For some who won’t acknowledge gender bias, likability becomes the code for such expressions of gender prejudice. If Trump is the candidate, it will be especially challenging for any female to win in 2020.

The metrics of likability are nothing new and not gender-specific. Remember that George W. was more “likable” than John Kerry. W was the candidate people preferred to have a beer with.  And, though he looks a lot better now than Donald Trump, the beer buddy test didn’t produce a better president than Kerry would have been, likable or not.

Some who would support a female nominee believe that Warren smacks of blue-state, coastal elitism,  which, along with other more significant negative characteristics, damaged Hillary Clinton. Warren’s personal biography, her up-from-Oklahoma-poverty rise to national prominence, could help counter that.  It’s an authentic story.  Other personal characteristics stand up less well. It’s fine that Elizabeth likes beer. So, in spades, does Brett Kavanaugh. But did she have to interrupt a New Year’s Eve Instagram to go to the fridge and get a bottle, which she drank from?  Like Michael Dukakis in a helmet driving a tank, Warren was just trying too hard, suggesting a tin ear on the small things.  Not to mention how she handled the revelation of her DNA test, taken to get out ahead of the Pocahontas issue.

A Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll not long ago found that 58 percent of Massachusetts residents thought Warren shouldn’t run for President.  Just 32 percent favored her running.  Many progressives with whom I have spoken support Senator Warren as an important voice nationally but fear she can’t win a race for President.  They desperately want her to play the role in the Senate that Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank did for years in the House. Republicans, by contrast, are salivating for Warren to be the nominee, just as Democrats were lusting for Trump to be the Republican nominee in 2016.  That tells us something. Strange things do happen.

I have no doubt that Warren will improve as a candidate, and her presence early on will help shape the national dialogue.  Even if she ultimately loses, the race should make her a better Senator, perhaps even becoming more comfortable dealing with the press. She has the potential to be a benchmark against which other progressive candidates will be measured.  She may also drive home a message that, given where the country is, the Democratic Party will do better with a more centrist nominee with broader appeal on issues and greater ability to reach across the aisle.

All the talking heads from MSNBC to Fox should knock it off in proclaiming that Elizabeth Warren is dead on arrival.  We’ll all benefit if the media and other pundits learn how to be more measured and thoughtful in covering the race.  The news media covered the 2016 race dishonorably and this time should learn from their shameful behavior. There are miles to go before we vote.

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