Setti Warren for Governor?

The sun shone brightly on Saturday’s Beaumont Avenue block party in Newton, complete with kids, dogs, tee shirts and balloons.  Setti Warren, the Garden City’s two-term mayor, was announcing for governor  in front of the house in which he grew up.  The mood was warm; the mayor’s message, visionary and upbeat. After his speech, some of his supporters quietly acknowledged that his is an uphill battle, running against a popular Republican governor whose approval ratings are consistently over 70 percent, and whose support is even higher among Democrats. But, as one optimistic supporter whispered to me, “you never know.”

The driving theme of Warren’s campaign and the defining issue of his generation, he said, is economic inequality. And how do you deal with that?  By providing free public college education and moving to a single-payer health system.  He’d  pay for that (though there were no numbers on cost) by eliminating tax breaks for rich people and businesses (though there were no specifics on which tax breaks), and he’d also raise taxes (though no details on which ones and by how much.) He does support the so-called millionaire tax, which could be on the ballot in 2018.

He sounds a little like the Bernie Sanders of the gubernatorial race.  His values and big-picture philosophy are appealing, but shoulders shrug at the question of how much it would cost and how we’d pay for it. (Vermont tried single payer unsuccessfully. What has Warren learned from that?)

There’s a history of public service in the Warren family. Setti’s grandfather had served in the military in World War II. His late father, Joe, had fought in the Korean War been a had been a supporter of Governor Mike Dukakis, (who was present with his wife, Kitty).  Setti Warren, a veteran of the Iraq War, has been mayor for seven years.  Each generation making things better for the next generation is the American Dream, he said.  His commitment to free college education is rooted in what the GI Bill did for the previous generation.  He says that the question of whether we leave the world better off than we found it is a moral question as much as an economic one.

He conceded that “Massachusetts has been on a roll” and notes that the Commonwealth weathered the Great Recession by investing in education, infrastructure, and in 21st century sectors like life sciences and clean energy. But, he repeated, we’re not doing enough. And that means raising taxes. Warren talked about reforming the Beacon Hill budget process, providing multi-year revenue projections, eliminating one-time revenue sources, providing more transparency.

One couldn’t disagree when he decried the divisive rhetoric in today’s civic discourse and talked about the need to listen to one another. But his overarching message was one in which he could as easily have been announcing a run for U.S. Senate, something he tried when just 15 months into his first term. He withdrew when even his mayoral supporters said, whoa, this was really premature.

It won’t be long before Setti Warren has to go beyond painting his vision and reveal the details of how he’d get from here to there.  His lack of data didn’t serve him well on Monday night when pressed for specifics by Greater Boston’s Jim Braude. When Deval Patrick ran for governor in 2006, he had similar lofty rhetoric, which, when he was elected, didn’t always translate into effective administration. Charlie Baker lacks the “drift-of-the-driving-dream” skills, but polls consistently show that people like him and his ability to manage. (Could more articles like Frank Phillips’ piece in this morning’s Boston Globe about Baker-Polito administration Environmental Affairs patronage  dull his shine?)

I’m glad that the younger generation includes accomplished individuals like Setti Warren, who has served Newton pretty well, has enlightened values and takes a long-term view of the challenges we face.  But he’ll have to go a long way to prove that the incumbent governor, Charlie Baker, needs replacing.

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Impeachment, the 25th Amendment or neither?

It’s too early to talk seriously about Presidential impeachment. Increasing reports about apparent obstruction of  justice or enrichment of  Donald Trump’s own and  family businesses in violation of the emoluments clause are still at the fact-gathering stage, especially now that former FBI Director Robert Mueller has been named Special Counsel to investigate all things Russian. Building a case for impeachment could take a long time.

That prompts us to reflect on the applicability of the 25th Amendment, which permits the removal of a President for the “inability to discharge the powers and duties of his office.” The case seems simple. As NY Times columnist Ross Douthat  put it, Donald Trump is sadly deficient in the basic elements of fitness: “a reasonable level of intellectual curiosity, a certain seriousness of purpose, a basic level of managerial competence, a decent attention span, a functional moral compass, a measure of restraint and self-control.” Add to that a possible clear and present threat to national security, and it would be a relief were the 25th Amendment a clear way out.

The problem  is that the 25th Amendment requires the Vice President and a majority of Cabinet members to declare the President unable to discharge the duties of office and name the Vice President as Acting President. If, after they notify the House and Senate, the President fights the declaration, it must be followed by a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress. It’s hard to imagine Mike Pence (typically standing at press events standing behind the President nodding affirmatively like a bobble-head doll) ending his role as sycophant-in-chief. The same can be said of a majority of the toadies in the Cabinet (Betsy DeVos, Scott Pruitt, Rick Perry, Ben Carson, Jeff Sessions, Tom Price, Mick Mulvaney, Wilbur Ross, perhaps even National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster).

House and Senate leadership are also wimps. While many rank-and-file Republicans in potentially swing districts are anxious for their own skins, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said limply that he just wants a little less drama from the White House. House Speaker Paul Ryan, while appropriately saying we need all the facts, still says he has confidence in the President, despite Trump’s having shared intelligence with the Russians and having leaned on former FBI Director James Comey to let up on the investigation of “the Russian thing.”

So far most of Trump’s base is holding  strong. But one after another revelation, on an almost daily basis, has even many loyalists worried.  Trump famously said his people would stand by him even if he shot someone in broad daylight. What might tomorrow’s news bring?

In 1974,  when  Richard Nixon’s end was near, a majority of House Republicans still refused to support any of the Articles of Impeachment.  It will not be easy motivating the current brood  to do the right thing, unless they view it in their narrow self-interest and have a rationale for action.

Could medical issues provide cover,  giving Trump’s cabinet, members of Congress, (and their constituents)  a face-saving way to support 25th Amendment  action?  His 2016 medical disclosure was laughably incomplete. Might there now be some objective demonstration that he has  some  physical or mental disorder   making him unfit, indeed dangerous, to himself and the country? Their actions could then be seen as merciful, taking away the burdens of office  from an otherwise well-intentioned person who sincerely wanted to make America great again. Trump’s father suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. Ronald Reagan apparently suffered with it during his time in office. There is no shame or blame attached to its sufferers, just sympathy and compassion. If illness were a real consideration, Trump himself would be free to return to his business interests, where his grandiosity, self-dealing, paranoia and limited intellect would find a more natural home.

The press has a long history of acquiescing to cover-ups of serious presidential health problems. Think Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy. Today, we decry such collusion as failure of professional responsibility and derogation of the public’s right to know. Reporters covering the White House know that they must report what they are hearing and able to verify. Digging into health issues, of course, flies in the face of legitimate concerns over the privacy of medical records.

The alt right (e.g., Alex Jones and Roger Stone)  recently produced a video claiming  talk about impeachment or activating the 25th Amendment to declare Trump unfit is all part of an establishment conspiracy to take down the unconventional person who is succeeding is breaking up the bad old way of doing this.

Notwithstanding the difficulties, columnists like the  NY Times’ Ross Douthat are feeding hopes about the 25th Amendment, based on Donald Trump’s patent inability to discharge the powers and duties of his office.  As he writes, “It is not squishy New York Times conservatives who regard the president as a child, an intellectual void, a hopeless case, a threat to national security; it is people who are self-selected loyalists, who supported him in the campaign, who daily go to work for him.”

But the reality is that the 25th Amendment leaves the President a lot of maneuvering room, including the ability quickly to fire “disloyal” cabinet members and replace them with more rubber-stamp types. By the time the political maneuvering and court challenges play out, the case for impeachment may be ripe. Plus, as the Wall St. Journal’s Brian Kait reminds, “because impeachment requires only a simple House majority, it is easier for the President to defeat a Section 4 action than to avoid impeachment.”

It’s of no little significance that Trump White House lawyers are reportedly researching impeachment procedures “out of an abundance of caution.”

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Mueller good choice for a crucial role

Finally, some good news out of Washington.  The Department of Justice has appointed former FBI Director Bob Mueller to be Independent Counsel to investigate all issues related to Russian intervention in the American election. Mueller has the latitude and resources to investigate President Donald Trump’s relationship to the Russians, contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russians,  possible collusion between the President and Vladimir Putin or other top Russian officials to benefit the Trump campaign, even the circumstances surrounding Donald Trump’s leaking of highly classified intelligence to Russia the day after he fired former FBI Director James Comey. Mueller can also review Trump’s tax returns for relevant information.

It was Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein who made the appointment, which redeems his reputation, sullied when Trump used him in Comey’s dismissal. Mueller, who served as FBI Director for 12 years under both Republican and Democratic administrations, is one of the good guys, a person of serious demeanor, high intelligence, utmost integrity, courage and all the other values so important to our nation in this time of crisis.  Whether he finds criminal wrong-doing or determines there was none, the American people can put faith in the outcome of the investigation.  It’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to the task than this individual.  I knew and respected him when he was U.S. Attorney in Boston after he had served in that position in San Francisco.

The appointment takes the heat off  many Republican members of Congress, who didn’t want this appointment, but now can tell their constituents they’re doing their job.  Having a DoJ independent counsel shouldn’t deter House and Senate Committees from carrying on their investigations.  Having some duplication may present problems with, for example, the granting of immunity.  But Congressional investigations have a greater chance of providing the public with important information about past wrongdoing and grossly unethical  behavior that wouldn’t see the light of day under Independent Counsel Mueller if there is no narrow finding of criminality. Congress, not DoJ,  is the body that must take the lead in designing steps to prevent the misbehavior of 2016 from occurring again.

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Saturday night massacre 2.0

If you tuned in late, you might think you were watching The Apprentice, just another episode of Donald Trump’s “You’re fired.” Or you might think a time machine had catapulted us back to the infamous “Saturday night massacre,” when embattled President Richard Nixon sacked Watergate independent prosecutor Archibald Cox, which prompted the resignations of Attorney General Eliot Richardson and then Deputy A.G. William Ruckelshaus.  But we’re not on reality TV, (though it does seem that Donald Trump is in some alternate universe.) And this is 2017, not 1973.

Whatever the flaws in FBI Director James Comey’s performance over the last 18 months – and there were some glaring examples – , we can’t avoid the fact that our President fired the man who was leading the investigation of our President. He had the legal right to do so, but the decision at this time, to me, smells of obstruction of justice.

Nor can we avoid the fact that the official – Attorney General Jeff Sessions – who had pledged to recuse himself from the investigation of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign was the person who recommended to the President that he fire the man overseeing the investigation of ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Trump insists that the firing was because Comey “wasn’t doing a good job.” But we must ask “why now?”  especially since Trump was full of praise for Comey when Comey was making questionable moves regarding information on the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server. Especially since Comey’s missteps were related to events last summer. Especially since Trump could have let him go in January after the inauguration.

Why now? The only variable bearing in the timing of Comey’s firing is the stepping up of the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. In Comey’s recent meeting with Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein (appointed just two weeks ago), Comey had asked for a significant increase in resources for the investigation.  All along, Democrats have been calling for an independent counsel or special prosecutor, and that urging has intensified. (A law facilitating such an appointment was allowed to expire years ago.) Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says doing so would delay the ongoing investigation. His concern lacks credibility.

Among the many unanswered questions are: whom will Trump nominate to replace Comey? How tough will the Senate Judiciary Committee on the nominee?   Can Republicans and Democrats overcome partisanship and recognize that getting to the bottom of this mess is essential to the security of the nation and the integrity of its electoral process?  I’m encouraged that both leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.), have called on Comey to testify before it in closed session next Tuesday.

Donald Trump’s actions go beyond those of an entitled CEO of a closed corporation. They are those of a third-world dictator, an autocrat for whom process is an inconvenience to be eliminated at the stroke of a pen.  He is ignorant, impulsive, inconsistent, an invitation to chaos.

Recent Congressional performance has been wanting.  What Republican of stature will step up to the challenge? Who will be the “Howard Baker” of 2017? (Baker was the Republican Senator from Tennessee who famously asked of Richard Nixon, “what did the President know, and when did he know it?”) Who today will rise to the occasion? Will it be John McCain? Richard Burr? Jeff Flake? Ben Sasse? Putting principle over party can lay the groundwork for real and drastically needed bipartisanship.

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Fenway: the past is now?

Fans’ racial slurs at Fenway Park this week led to national news stories about Boston as a racist city.  People are all too quick to believe that and damn the city, as did Saturday Night Live’s Michael Che several weeks ago. The same attitude was reflected by Stephen Colbert on CBS and headliners on CNN and elsewhere.

But Boston’s long history of institutional racism, highlighted in the busing era, red-lined housing patterns and discriminatory banking, doesn’t warrant the assumption that recent slurs, however despicable,  mean nothing has changed here in the last four decades.  Or that such incidents don’t happen in other cities and other sports. Consider the anti-Semitism of Dutch soccer fans.

Still, the progress that has been made doesn’t mean the task is over. We are reminded of the ongoing challenge every time an African-American offered a job in Boston demurs because of the city’s reputation for racial problems. In the end, this longstanding reputation harms its economy, its culture, its educational institutions and its future.

Sports, beer and testosterone in the stands are a combination that can bring out the worst in a small minority of individuals. The Fenway incidents were totally unacceptable and deserve the condemnation they have received.  Local and state officials, columnists and the ownership of the Red Sox all voiced their outrage, and the Sox banned for life the fan who, on Tuesday night, used the N word to describe the singing of the Kenyan woman who performed the National Anthem.

What was different that night (as compared to Monday evening when a fan slurred Baltimore outfielder Adam Jones and a bag of peanuts was thrown at the Baltimore dugout) was that another fan sought out security personnel. They, in turned, ejected the ignoramus, which led to his losing access to the Park for life.  Fans must also do their part. Those who remain silent when they hear such vile comments are culpable as well. There is a societal responsibility to stand up for inclusiveness and demonstrate zero tolerance for racism.

Today’s Red Sox organization is a far cry from the bad old days chronicled in former Boston Herald sports writer Howard Bryant’s book Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston.  But team brass need to go still further. It should hold a season ticket holder responsible for the behavior of his guests or others who share his seats. The primary owner of the seats should lose the privilege if others abuse their access. The team should also seed the park with plainclothes security people, seated among the fans, to ensure the safety and civility of the crowd.

The toxic national political atmosphere may be a dog whistle for ignorant scumbags nursing hatreds to bring them out in the open.  The Trump presidency seems to have broadened the definition of acceptable targets for discrimination. That new atmosphere of viciousness makes it all the more important for the overwhelming majority to reject hateful acts whenever they cross our paths.

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Moulton and the great mentioners

Speculation is stirring; the mentioners are mentionning.  Despair about the lack of a Democratic bench is giving way to thoughts of who may really be “out there” as potential contenders for opposition party candidates for President in 2020.  So there it was, in this morning’s Boston Globe front-page speculation about a potential 2020 presidential bid by Seth Moulton, barely into his third year in Congress. Sunday’s New York Times  indicated Moulton hasn’t ruled it out.

And why not?  Moulton already has 820 more days of governmental experience than our incumbent President, who had exactly zero days when he was inaugurated in January. Moulton had actually served his country before seeking public office, doing four tours as a Marine in Iraq. Like Trump, Moulton took on the establishment, running against and defeating longtime Congressman John Tierney in the 2014 party primary.  He reinforced his credentials as one of the new generation by supporting an alternative to Nancy Pelosi for Speaker of the House.

Moulton has been an early and outspoken critic of Trump, starting with the President’s ill-considered Muslim ban, which, Moulton said, would help the terrorists’ recruitment efforts.  Moulton had also been highly critical of Obama’s policies for their failure to develop governance strategies for times after despotic leaders had been overturned. He has called credibly for “clear goals and objectives” in our foreign policy. He has gained visibility in the national media, most recently as a panelist on Bill Maher’s show last Friday night.

But Moulton is playing another important role as well, one that may be antithetical to becoming his party’s nominee and one that may better serve this country’s interests than advancing his own candidacy.  Moulton has aligned himself with 60 members of the House who call themselves New Democrats. He recently appeared at a New England Council panel discussion with three of them: blue Connecticut’s Jim Himes,  and red state congressmen Ron Kind of Wisconsin and Terri Sewell, the only Democrat in Alabama’s  delegation. They describe the New Democrats as pragmatic moderates, most with private sector experience, pro-growth, and policy wonks.  As Sewell put it, they would “rather be at the table than on the menu.”

This group echoes the so-called Tuesday group of Republicans, also self-described moderates, who resist reflexive ideology.  Both groups seek more jobs, more efficient government, and less stridency on social issues. They are more transactional and, working together, could change the tone in Washington.

For independents and others who are more comfortable in the center, the potential for the New Democrats and the Tuesday Group of Republicans to work together and get something accomplished on issues like infrastructure and tax reform has great appeal. But is a New Democrat someone to whom the party of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would turn in the 2020 presidential primary? Last year, Hillary Clinton was a centrist nominee and, though she won the popular vote, she lost to you-know-whom. Partisan activists may be looking for ideological purity next time.  The centrist Democratic nominee hasn’t succeeded since 1992 when Bill Clinton came out of the Democratic Leadership Council, organized as an antidote to the George McGovern reform wing of the party that lost resoundingly in 1972.

Many Democratic Party liberals are sure to call Moulton’s and the New Democrats’ moderate “third way” and practical perspective as Republican lite. But this new generation of pragmatists should not be deterred. Absence of conciliation has contributed to Congress’ failure to perform and historically low public opinion ratings. Most people are fed up with gridlock born of partisanship.

A critical dilemma for those working to mitigate Congress’ hyper partisanship by reaching across the aisle is that such helpful initiatives may ultimately be self-defeating in the electoral world. There may be as few as 23 swing districts in the House. Democratic organizations seeking to reclaim the House  in 2018 have already started to focus on defeating Republicans in those districts, the very people who have shown the greatest inclination to reach across the aisle, work with the New Democrats and serve the country’s interests.  Not all of these so-called moderates are the same.  Some are worth saving more than others. It’s one scenario if Democrats defeat the worst of the moderate Republicans to regain control of the House and restore some institutional balance in Washington. But it would be a setback for the country if the better moderates are beaten by Tea Party (now Freedom Caucus) Republicans in primaries and go on to replace them in Congress.

At some point, Moulton will have to decide whether he wants to seek common ground for the greater good, or join what will soon be a growing flock of political birds succumbing to Potomac Fever and catering to the extremes of their parties to capture the Presidential nomination.  He can also hope that by not pandering he can make a case for bipartisanship and be rewarded by getting traction in the quadrennial sweepstakes. He should remember that the last House member to jump directly into the Presidency was James Garfield in 1880, after serving in the House for 18 years.

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College students need more, not fewer controversial ideas

Right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter has cancelled her plan to speak tomorrow at Sproul Plaza at U.C. Berkeley, on the very spot at which the Free Speech Movement was launched more than 50 years ago.   She was supposed to talk about immigration, (of great importance to the academic community) and event planners had hoped there would be a dialogue.  It was an on-again off-again appearance, ultimately cancelled because the university understandably couldn’t guarantee security in the unrestricted access, outdoor setting.

Publicity about U.C. Berkeley’s resistance to the Coulter appearance was an open invitation to outsiders – notably violent black ski mask anarchists – to come on campus and agitate.  At least having her in a school building would have permitted metal detectors and other security measures. That was not to be.

This intolerance of diversity of thought echoes Brandeis University’s cancellation of commencement speaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali two years ago, because Muslim and other students were critical of Hirsi Alli’s memoir “Infidel,” in which she decried her upbringing in Somalia, being subjected to genital mutilation, and her parents’ attempt to marry her off as a child.

I agree with Ann Coulter about nothing, but the reluctance of colleges and universities to present controversial speakers and ideas is profoundly disturbing. Why do students cough up tens of thousands of dollars if not to learn how to deal with people and thoughts outside of their comfort zones? Today, it’s the conservatives likely to be frozen out; a generation ago, on many campuses it was those on the left, with their opposition to the Vietnam War.

Debates about controversy in the marketplace of ideas aren’t just a matter of who comes on campus. Regrettably there have been too many attempts to stifle uncomfortable ideas among members of the college community and even in classes.  Snowflakes are no longer a meteorological phenomenon. The term now applies to students who must have their tender psyches protected from ideas that make them uncomfortable. Again, how do they learn how to get along in the real world if every violent or sexual idea requires a trigger warning?

Recently, an editorial in the newspaper of Wellesley College, my alma mater, dismissed the importance of maintaining free speech, however objectionable that speech may be. The editorial was roundly criticized, deservedly so. Finding the sweet spot between political correctness to protect people’s feelings and sustaining vigorous debate among conflicting ideas is a challenge on many campuses today, and is a disturbing trend. Seeing a newspaper editorial embracing First Amendment limitations is particularly troubling. Fortunately, college president Paula Johnson wrote to the community about the importance of robust dialogue on campus. “Active, open debate enriches and illuminates,” she said.  “It is fundamental to how we create new ways of seeing and thinking.” She got that right.

So too did the University of Chicago’s dean of students  John Ellison last fall when he sent a letter to incoming students critical of trigger warnings as inimical to freedom of expression.  That doesn’t mean freedom to harass or threaten. It does mean freedom to debate and disagree.

Civility is important in rational discourse. But absence of civility is not an acceptable rationale for ending discourse altogether. It would be healthier if more colleges and universities understood this.

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