Black arm bands not boycott for inauguration protest

trump-clownSo, Ringling Bros. is closing down the circus after 146 years. But, in this inaugural week, the circus hasn’t left town.  We can’t be sure where the lions and trapeze artists are going, but we certainly know where the elephants and marquis clown are headed. And it’s not to entertain little children.

Until now, I never understood fear of clowns. It seems to be a recent phenomenon, and it has a name: coulrophobia.  The fears are elicited by the clown’s unfamiliar, distorted, disturbing and dangerous impulses and mannerisms. Children thus terrified are said to be affected throughout their lives. It’s not mere coincidence that the clown about to be sworn in as 45th President of the United States has a shock of red hair and erratic movements. We know he’s not a Clarabelle or Bozo, but we don’t know yet if he’s more a Creepy Clown or Killer Clown.

We’ve never seen a President like him.  There have been other Presidents with reckless temperament, including  John Adams (given to tirades and contemptuous of the press), Andrew Jackson (raging, petty and vindictive) and John Tyler (lewd). But no one in my lifetime resembles what Trump represents, and his pathologically unbridled narcissism and embrace of know-nothingism are unprecedented for a Leader of the Free World.

His undisciplined tweeting puts his non-normative behavior all the more in our face. Consider his recent rants against Georgia Congressman John Lewis, the heroic embodiment of the Civil Rights movement, who marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, and nearly killed in Selma. Lewis says he will, for the first time in 30 years, not attend the inauguration. Because of Russian interference,  he doesn’t see Trump’s Presidency as legitimate.

In response, Trump blasted Lewis as “all talk and no action, no results.” Trump decried Lewis’ district (which includes some of the toniest communities in the nation) as crime-infested and scoffed that Lewis should spend his time solving housing and crime issues in the nation’s cities (and not worry about Trump’s relationship with the Russians.)  Republican establishment voice Bill Kristol observed that “Trump shows more respect for Vladimir Putin than for John Lewis.” The Sunday morning political shows were filled with reactions to Trump’s tweets as “the new abnormal.”  (There may be a method to his craziness inasmuch as each tweet distracts from the darker stories that need our attention.)

Massachusetts Congresswoman Katherine Clark is among those who will boycott the inauguration along with Lewis.  Clark refuses to normalize Trump’s bigoted, misogynist, anti-Semitic and racist claims.”  Lewis says “If you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation to do something about it.”  I agree, but, because the peaceful transition of power is a signature of our democracy, I would rather they attend the inauguration in silence and express themselves by wearing black armbands.  In doing so, they will take a symbolic stand and affirm democratic norms. We look to them for leadership in speaking out vigorously over the coming days, weeks and years.

Some Republicans and many Democrats have moved from actively grieving the 2016 electoral college results to trying to figure out action plans to save, if not advance, the values of reason and civil discourse, not to mention the specific issues of climate change, health care for all, job creation and a nuclear-free peace. It’s still far from clear what concrete next steps are to be taken, and there’s work to be done instead of just waiting to exhale after Friday’s ceremonies.

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Obama still stands for hope, alloyed with action

obama“When they go low, we go high,” is Michelle Obama’s credo.  Last night, her husband exemplified that commitment.  He spoke to the best that is in the American people, the power of faith, the ability of ordinary people to come together over shared values.  We will remain the most powerful and respected nation on earth only “if our policy reflects the decency of our people” and a sense of common purpose.

Wisely, he called on people of color to walk in the shoes of the fearful middle-aged white guy at the same time he called on whites to know that minorities are not seeking special treatment, just equal treatment. He called on all of us not to retreat into bubbles, reinforced by niche media using facts selectively to reinforce biases. The bottom line was that we can’t take democracy for granted. We must embrace the responsibility of citizenship and resist any attempt to weaken the ties that make us one.

We’re reminded daily that democracy can buckle under the threat of ignorance and fear. No matter how bad the morning headlines may be, President-elect Donald Trump provides some new item to shock or disgust.  Note that Friday, as he should have been focused on the intelligence community report detailing the severity of Russian hacking, the President-elect was tweeting to denigrate Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance on The New Celebrity Apprentice and compare the replacement host’s ratings to his own some 17 years ago.  (He is so thin-skinned (and insecure) that he has to spend time attacking Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin.) This is the incoming Leader of the Free World!

Whatever Barack Obama’s failures, and there have been many, especially in the area of foreign policy, he has been thoughtful, articulate, purposeful, and rational. His administration has been pretty much scandal-free. His farewell address was yet another reminder of what Donald Trump is not.

President Obama reversed the Great Recession into which we had been plunged, adding 16 million jobs over his tenure. It has been the most sustained economic expansion in history. Great swaths of the country, however, were not touched by the turn-around. He made significant progress on climate change policy, but those whose fossil fuel-jobs were lost saw the promises of new opportunities as abstractions. The Affordable Care Act took the first step forward on health coverage in half a century, but partisan animosities prevented necessary adjustments. He was an exemplar of diversity and inclusiveness and slowed the Iran nuclear expansion.

Sadly, he failed on measures to increase gun safety.  Despite prematurely receiving the Nobel Peace Prize just because he wasn’t George Bush, President Obama left the Middle East a boiling cauldron. While he destroyed Osama bin Laden and drew down troops in Iraq and Afghanistan,  ISIS sprung up in the vacuum we left there and elsewhere. While he opened the door to a more rational relationship with Cuba, he weakened our posture vis-à-vis Vladimir Putin. Despite rhetoric to the contrary, his administration was notable for its lack of transparency. And his failed early efforts to build bridges across the aisle are leaving a level of bitter partisanship we may suffer from for a long time.

As with his predecessors, Barack Obama’s lasting legacy may not be known for decades. His immediate legacy in various policy areas could be undermined or overturned by his successor. But last night’s speech reminded us of the best of what we can be, and of the work that lies ahead in dealing with four years of what could be the worst.

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Mend it, don’t end it, and call it Trumpcare

stethoscopeWas it 50 or 60 times the GOP has voted to end Obamacare? With an incoming President who has called the law “a disaster,” the oft-repeated move can now become reality, and the  Republicans own it.  But their move to repeal and, over several years, replace the Affordable Care Act is a recipe for chaos. What they need to do is mend it, not end it, call it Trumpcare, declare victory and go on to some other issue.

No monumental legislation (whether Social Security or Medicare) was perfect in its incarnation. Both examples were works in progress. But Republicans so hated Barack Obama that they adopted as mantra the priority of ending the ACA. Despite its growing pains, Obamacare was a success in the making. According to the most recent studies, fewer than ten percent of the population is now uninsured (Center for Disease Control), an historic low. Contrary to popular myth, the poor are not having difficulty finding doctors (Council of Economic Advisors). Hospitals’ uncompensated care costs have been cut in half as a percentage of operating budgets (Department of Health and Human Services).  The growth in the percentage of GDP eaten up by health care has been declining.

These numbers don’t even include the satisfaction and fright reduction achieved by ending refusal to insure due to pre-existing conditions and allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ policies up to age 26.  Yes, premium costs have escalated for some people in some states, but 85 percent of those individuals are eligible for subsidies.  Are rising costs not a legitimate concern?  Of course they are.  But just as Massachusetts experienced under Romney Care, goal one was to get people insured, then ratchet up cost-saving measures.

The problem is how to achieve cost controls if, instead of increasing the number of young and healthy people insured, the Republican solution is to end the individual mandate for insurance, leaving an actuarial base that is older and sicker.  We expect to buy auto insurance. Why shouldn’t we expect to buy health insurance?  The individual mandate was originally a Republican idea hatched by the Heritage Foundation to avoid a single payer approach.  Now, there’s some evidence that the market for health insurance policies – , including the health insurance exchanges under Obamacare,  – might collapse without the requirement to buy insurance.

Among the possibilities for altering the ACA is to reduce its impact on small businesses, reducing costs by slowing the pace at which subsidies phase out, and finding lower-priced alternatives by raising deductibles.  (Much would be gained by allowing the federal government to negotiate lower drug costs with big pharma.)

Republicans are laying the groundwork for fast-track repeal by working through the budget reconciliation process and also anticipating a series of executive orders. The United States already lags behind other industrialized democracies in its commitment to health care for all.  This move by Republicans, especially the rigid ideologues in the House, reflects the worst of partisan politics inflicting the most harm on those least able to fend for themselves.

Repealing the ACA without having a meaningful replacement is horrifyingly cynical and callous.  And, if that doesn’t bother you, it’s also fiscally irresponsible.  Many costs won’t go away; they’ll just shift. Paradoxically, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget predicts that repeal will cost the federal government $350 billion through 2027.  According to The Washington Post, some Republican members of Congress put the cost of repeal as high as $30 trillion.   The numbers are all over the chart, but the message is clear: repeal will cost, and it will cost in dollars and human impact. (Some studies point to lives saved under Obamacare, with health services being delivered at earlier stages of illness.)

Ironically, some salvation for the 23 million who stand to lose their coverage (many in states that supported Donald Trump) may be provided in the unlikely hands of the President-elect who, in a series of tweets and campaign speeches, said he does not want to hurt people. He seems inclined to move more slowly on the idea of outright repeal of Obamacare. What a strange world we live in, when we cling to the ephemeral musings of an incoming President who has called for “replace and replace” rather than “repeal and delay,” who has said that “everyone should have health insurance,” and has even said that government should play a significant role. This puts him at odds with Congressional Republicans, so we may anticipate an intriguing drama with monumental consequences.

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Settlements bad; UN Resolution doesn’t help

map-of-israelDonald Trump’s egregiously right-wing nominee to be ambassador to Israel, his diplomatically challenged bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman, may please Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But his nomination doesn’t augur well for growing divisions within the American Jewish community or American-Israeli relations. In addition to enthusiastically embracing unlimited West Bank settlement expansion and opposing a two-state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict, Friedman has labeled Jews who don’t agree with his approach as “worse than kapos.” Kapos were concentration camp prisoners who helped the SS by keeping fellow Jews in line. His comparison is odious.

A majority of American Jews oppose further settlement expansion and support a two-state solution with adequate provisions for security but were surprised when the Obama administration  abstained from the United Nations resolution condemning the West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements.

This wasn’t the first time a US Administration (going back to Ronald Reagan) had abstained in Israeli settlement votes in the Security Council. But this abstention unleashed a firestorm of criticism from the Jewish community, including ridiculous charges of anti-Semitism. Netanyahu, pandering, called Obama “an enemy of Israel,” this though the United States is unquestionably Israel’s staunchest ally and just inked an epic 10-year $38 billion military aid package. NY Times writer Tom Friedman, well steeped in the subject, says of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, he has “never met two U.S. leaders more committed to Israel as a Jewish democracy.”

Without a two-state solution, which recognizes Palestine’s right to exist as a functioning sovereign entity, Israel can either be Jewish or a democracy. As Kerry said, it cannot be both. As a single state containing the West Bank and Gaza, given demographics, Palestinians could dilute or dissolve Israel’s Jewishness.  To preserve itself as a Jewish state, it would have to oppress and disenfranchise Palestinians in what would amount to a form of apartheid. Neither alternative is acceptable.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry insist, with credibility, that settlement expansion undermines the possibility of that two-state solution. Netanyahu occasionally gives lip service to the two-state concept, but his actions (and his boast of being the most settlement-friendly prime minister) make his commitment seem hollow.   (It may be that Netanyahu’s primary interest is just holding onto power, which for now requires his alignment with the right wing in Israel, opponents of a two-state solution.)

The settlements aren’t the only impediment to peace, of course.  Historically, whenever the two sides have negotiated agreements or are coming close, violence has erupted, rooted in the refusal of  Palestinians and other Arab states to acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. Their children’s textbooks don’t even display maps that  include Israel.   Reportedly, Obama agreed to abstain on the U.N. resolution because it contained  language criticizing violence and terrorism.  That wording was thin gruel at best. This weak claim to balance shouldn’t have given him cover to abstain.  Internationalizing the conflict at the U.N. now is the wrong move. That body has repeatedly shown it is not yet able to be an honest broker in resolving this conflict.

As with previous Resolutions, this one includes both the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and could be used to limit Israelis’ access to significant sites, including the Western Wall, Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus.  Even before the vote, Donald Trump had promised to move the American embassy to Jerusalem. In the wake of the abstention, law professor Alan Dershowitz argues compellingly to do just that.  My concern is for the unintended consequences. What additional problems and violence would be provoked? What will happen to the incipient relations between Israel and Sunni Arab countries brought together to confront Iran? Would other Arab nations insist the United States move its embassies from their capitals?

Clearly, things are going from bad to worse. In the past, Israeli courts have struck down the legality of the settlements; now the Knesset is considering legislation to make them retroactively legal. UN Resolution 2334 is a tool to delegitimize Israel internationally. It gives energy to Arab nations and others who would push the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions movement. It opens up new opportunities to take Israel  to the International Criminal Court. Could the United States have continued to oppose the settlements without giving this satisfaction to Israel’s enemies?  Perhaps not. Certainly hundreds of meetings with Netanyahu haven’t yielded any success. And now, with the U.N. activated, Palestinians have even less incentive to engage in direct negotiations.

American Jews have long viewed Israel as a source of pride, a special place, a virtuous democracy, successful economically, “a light unto other nations.” Today’s reality is a lot less lofty and a lot more complex than that. Both sides in the conflict are driven by extremists’ visions of God-given rights to the entire land. But, in the wake of the Resolution, it’s upsetting to see Israel becoming more isolated in the world. It’s disturbing to see the relationship between our two countries getting murkier. It’s concerning to see the ascendancy of a new tri-partite collaboration among Russia, Iran and Turkey exerting power over events in the Middle East, with the United States not even at the table.

The Obama administration has many things to be proud of as it leaves office. The situation in the Middle East is not one of them. President Trump could make matters even worse.

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Some headlines for 2017?

new-years-graphicAs befits the season, here are some little gifts, selected headlines I’d like to see next year. I have little expectation they will top newspapers or tease newscasts.  Still, a gal can dream. Please add your own in the comments section below.

President Trump, recognizing nation’s division, names Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

President Trump reforms Affordable Care Act, refusing to deprive 20 million newly insured of coverage.

President Trump keeps promise to preserve Medicare; angers Paul Ryan.

President Trump sounds Presidential, stops 3 a.m. tweets.

President Trump releases his tax returns, eliminates conflicts of interest.

Well, you get the idea. This list of Trumpian wishes goes on and on.

Democrats build a bench, start at state level to plan for 2018 and 2020.

Democrats decide what the party stands for.

Bloodshed ends in Syria. U.S. and Russia agree on plan to create lasting peace there.

CBS’ Les Moonves gives ISIS reality TV series, claims revenue potential for shareholders.

Flint, Michigan water pipes finally rebuilt; governor and others sentenced to jail.

Obama ban on Arctic drilling upheld by courts.

Bill Clinton caught in flagrante with Loretta Lynch. No, wait, that was last year.

Hillary Clinton lowers speaking fees to $32,000 per.

Chris Sale leads Red Sox to World Series win, David Price and Rick Porcello excel.

Income cap lifted on Social Security earnings.

Tom Brady leads N.E. Patriots to a Super Bowl win with a 13-yard running play, in his Ugg boots.

Obamas buy retirement property in Tel Aviv.

Viewers locate new NBC Boston channel in time for July 4th celebration.

MBTA gets trains running on time and under budget despite snowfall.

Maura Healey opts for reelection; joins other attorneys general as first line of defense against President Trump.

Tito Jackson ends bid to unseat Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, lays groundwork for 2021 bid.

U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz apologizes for over-reach in political corruption cases.

Labor unions and Probation Department spurn patronage hirings despite Ortiz’ departure.

Last year, I thought I wouldn’t see headlines like “median incomes rise for first time in decades,” “Red Sox go from last to first,” “Boston Globe irons out delivery problems,” “Iran complies with nuclear accord,” (so far, so good, right?).  So perhaps some of the least expected story lines may yet emerge, especially given Donald Trump’s unpredictability, inconsistency and irrationality. Fasten your seatbelts: it’s going to be an interesting – and bumpy – ride.

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Elizabeth Warren right to apologize

photo Getty Images

photo Getty Images

Shortly before Elizabeth Warren announced her Senate candidacy,  my husband asked her what past senators were her consumer protection role models and where on the spectrum between William Proxmire and Phil Hart she’d place herself. Proxmire was a maverick legislator, renowned for creating the Golden Fleece Award, sarcastically given to public officials who wasted taxpayer money, and for being unwilling to play what he deemed go-along-to-get-along political games.  Hart was also a liberal but noted for his humility, civility and gentlenesss. He was esteemed by both sides of the aisle. Without hesitating, Warren said, her preferred model was Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum.

Metzenbaum, a self-made millionaire, was a staunch liberal who ferreted out special interest provisions hidden in larger bills but is also remembered as one who used every legislative trick to make his point and would push the limit in filibustering bills he opposed. (One notable filibuster lasted two weeks.) To his critics he was a “headline hog,” the “last angry liberal,” and “a pain in the ass.” Ted Kennedy eulogized him as “the conscience of the Senate, who never shied away from the difficult fights.”

Elizabeth Warren assumed office prepared to leave “teeth and blood” on the floor fighting to protect those who’d been hammered against those who’d taken advantage of them. In four years in the Senate, she’s done that, providing a forceful voice for those victimized by a rigged system. She’s become both  the heartthrob and  pit bull of the Democratic Party,  one who brought real passion to the battles to defeat Donald Trump. Her leadership is even more important now that there will be one-party control of the executive, legislative and (soon) judicial branches of government.

But this week’s stories in the  New York Times  and the Boston Globe suggest a weakness that could seriously undermine her all-important role in the new Senate. Fortunately, although too slowly in my view, she acknowledged her error and called her victim to apologize.

Warren had impetuously attacked  hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson on Facebook for allegedly being a fan of Donald Trump and his appointments.  Without reading Tilson’s full remarks or seeking the context for the quotation, Warren scoffed that “the next four years are going to be a bonanza for the Whitney Tilsons of the world.” The problem is that Tilson is a rare financier who supports Elizabeth Warren as well as the Dodd-Frank banking law.  He also supported Hillary Clinton big time. When contacted by Tilson and his wife (a former student of Warren), the Senator was only willing to delete the erroneous descriptor of Tilson as a billionaire, but kept the negative posting until late yesterday.

Some who have responded to her Facebook posting called Warren’s thoughtless misstep Trumpian.  I wouldn’t go that far, (she did, after all, eventually apologize to her innocent victim),  but,  if we’ve learned anything this election cycle, it’s the dangers of knee-jerk ranting on social media without the benefit of all the facts. Warren has just been appointed to the  Senate Armed Services Committee, an important position with relevance not just to the defense industry in Massachusetts but to questions of national security.

Putting aside any aspirations to future higher office, not owning up to her mistake would have consequences  for her efficacy in the here and now.  Her attack on Tilson was sloppy and ill-informed, clearly painting with too broad a brush.  Such shoot first/then aim approach undermines her credibility and communicates a reflexive way of thinking that is not helpful in this caustic political environment.  It gives aid and comfort to her enemies who would trash her message by tarnishing the messenger. She must avoid becoming a caricature when her talents are sorely needed.

The Democrats need to stand strong with well-grounded information in the face of fact- optional fusillades. Where possible, they also need to  build bridges skillfully,  reaching beyond  purist ideological circles, not blowing up relationships in such a ham-handed way.

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Donald Trump: the gift that keeps on giving

trump-drain-swampThe world was simpler when Donald Trump was merely spouting off slogans or saying offensive things at rallies. But every day brings worse news. The three a.m. tweets, which once showcased his ignorance and lack of discipline, now have real-life consequences, and they’re not for the faint of heart. Trump’s leadership picks are  grotesque, a story of crony capitalism. It is, to paraphrase Shakespeare, “a tale told by idiots, signifying” far more than we can imagine.

The man who said he would drain the swamp is simply restocking it with his favorite specimens.  The man who said he knew more than the generals is now fortifying his administration with them.   He who decried Wall Street money’s influence on politics is larding his team with his billionaire donors. The candidate who scoffed at Hillary Clinton’s ties to the banking industry has named Goldman Sachs executive Steven Mnuchin as treasury secretary,  distressed asset investor Wilbur Ross as commerce secretary and, lest we forget, former Goldman alum Steve Bannon as strategic advisor.  There are so many other millionaires and billionaires playing significant roles that  Forbes is keeping a running list.

I’m not opposed to millionaires and billionaires in government, and some could provide fresh and useful perspectives. But the policies his nominees support are chilling.  Amway heiress Betsy DeVos, his education secretary choice, is not a supporter of public education. His labor secretary, fast food CEO Andy Puzder, opposes the minimum wage.  Oklahoma Attorney General Tom Pruitt, proposed environmental secretary, is a climate change doubter and wants to undo Obama regulations of the fossil fuel industry.

Trump’s selection for Health and Human Services, Rep. Tom Price, is dead set against the Affordable Care Act and isn’t too protective of Medicare either. Don’t get me started with the possibility of Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson becoming Secretary of State.

Ben Carson, tapped to head Housing and Urban Development, believes public housing fosters dependency.  (If you really want to lose sleep, catch up on Designated Survivor, the TV drama about what happens when the HUD Secretary is designated not to go to the State of the Union speech “just in case” something happens to the President and his potential successors.) I certainly hope we don’t have a Russian mole in the Trump administration.  There are  plenty of friends of Putin there.

The most disturbing news of all is the growing consensus in the intelligence community that Russia, in some way, hacked into our election. We will never know whether it affected the outcome. But foreign hacking is a threat to our democracy and, if sensitive data are in Russian hands, that material could be used to interfere in strategic decisions going forward.

Trump’s dismissal of the CIA report as “ridiculous” is not reassuring. One of the most promising developments in the past 48 hours is growing bipartisan support in Congress to investigate the matter, but it’s disturbing that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants it to be done by the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of its regular course of business. McConnell, whose wife is Trump’s Transportation Secretary nominee, could be swayed by narrow partisan pressures.  John McCain rightfully calls for a bipartisan special select commission engaging both House and Senate members of Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees. In the interest of timeliness, some individual committees can start now, but to be effective the effort should be broad-based and coordinated.

Former CIA director Michael Morell, who briefed George Bush in the wake of 9/11, now calls the hacking “the political equivalent of 9/11.”  It’s a chilling comment we should take seriously.

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