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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Gube race: Baker less visionary, more realistic

Candidate A once held the position of Secretary of Administration and Finance, nicknamed the deputy governor of the Commonwealth.  He was also an executive in a health care company, a sector that is vital to everyone in the state and a driver of the economy. He is a really good guy.  Candidate B, well, he fits the same description. They’re both running for governor, Republican Charlie Baker for a second term and Democrat Jay Gonzalez to unseat him.

There is substantial agreement between them on most issues: reproductive choice, gun control, green energy, funding pre-school, on and on. The major differences are style and the credibility of their plans. Gonzalez is a big picture guy, visionary, who criticizes virtually every Baker initiative as “small ball.”  He charges that Baker is not doing enough and represents little more than incremental change and status quo.  Gonzalez claims he offers “bold leadership.” Baker chides Gonzalez for offering over-reaching  campaign promises, “overselling what’s possible.”  I think they’re both right.

Gonzalez does have a big vision, but his plans for funding it are rooted in shifting sand.  He wants to raise $3 billion, $1 billion from taxing large college and university endowments (which generally go to fund financial aid for students) and $2 billion from a tax on million-dollar incomes, which has public support but trouble passing constitutional muster.  The price tag for all the programs in Gonzalez’ “plan” far exceeds the money he’d get even if he could get the taxes passed within two or three years.

Baker’s predecessor, Deval Patrick, was a charismatic, visionary leader who often fell down on day-to-day management and agency oversight. By contrast, Baker’s goals upon taking office lacked rhetorical flourish: rebuilding relationships with the Commonwealth’s cities and towns; working on what he calls “blocking and tackling,” that is, wrestling with priority management problems; and taking a collaborative approach with leaders across New England and in Washington.

As I wrote more than a year ago, Baker’s approach has involved some of the Commonwealth’s most knotty problems: the Department of Children and Families (DCF), the Health Connector, the T, and the Registry of Motor Vehicles. All got some fixing, but more must be done. The T has become a more effective enterprise, but, because parts of the system are a century old, triage has been necessary to stop the bleeding and prepare to reduce the huge backlog of deferred maintenance. (Long-term, the T will need billions of dollars in investments in its core operating systems.) In all these agencies, Baker says, his administration has taken a “no drama approach” to carrying on their work.

Gonzalez is relentless in his attack on Baker’s approach, repeating “not enough,” “should have stepped in earlier,” “totally unacceptable,” and “need to aim high.” Where he really (and legitimately) makes Baker squirm is on Baker’s inevitable commitment to support the Republican ticket, which includes Elizabeth Warren opponent state senator Geoff Diehl, who ran Donald Trump’s Massachusetts campaign and zealously supports the President.  Baker clearly does not,  but running as a Republican in Massachusetts presents an unenviable dilemma.  For four years, Baker has worked to get things done on a bipartisan basis, but on election day he tilts toward his party base, and Gonzalez has made political hay of that.  It is cringe-worthy to think Baker wants to send someone to the Senate who would support Trump and all the things that Baker himself opposes.

Gonzalez has also made the most of corruption in the state police. (Baker eliminated Troop E, the worst problem spot, and referred 48 state police to the Attorney General for further investigation.) Gonzalez, not surprisingly, says Baker took “way too long to get a handle on it.”

Clearly, this is an uphill battle for Gonzalez. Recent polls put Baker at a two-to-one advantage. Even a majority of Democrats say Baker is doing an adequate job. Gonzalez is certain that “adequate” isn’t enough, but he has yet to make the case that implementing his own vision is either realistic or affordable.  Barring some late October “surprise,” it’s hard to see how Gonzalez pulls this off or, for that matter, why we should root for his success.

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Question 1: Sounds good but isn’t

On its surface, referendum question #1 sounds terrific.  Require minimum number of registered nurses per patient in Massachusetts hospitals. Why wouldn’t that be better for patients?  Well, not so fast.  Here are some things to think about.

Rigid ratios do not take into consideration the ongoing assessment of a patient’s needs, which may change not only from shift to shift but from hour to hour. Hospitals –  the  doctors, nurses, and others responsible for patient care – need the flexibility to assign staff to the areas where they are most needed when they are most needed.

Rigid ratios are bad for patient care, arbitrary, and financially irresponsible. A recent Mass. Health Policy Commission study of projected costs if this referendum passes is $900 million, which gets passed on to all of us in higher premiums. (Another study puts the cost at $1.3 billion, while the Mass. Nurses Association claims it is a fraction of that.)  But increased costs may be less important than the sense that mandating a ratio is a Draconian substitute for good hospital management, bolstered by ongoing input from nurses and other staff.  Rigidly imposed staffing ratios could force hospitals to close wards and move patients in order to meet an arbitrary standard, actually reducing patient care.

Imagine it’s three a.m.  Patients on a hospital floor are generally asleep.  Several miles away, there’s a train crash, and ambulances are roaring toward this hospital’s emergency room with survivors. Physicians and administrators would need to pull nurses from all over the hospital to respond to the crisis or have to turn ambulances away. If this referendum passes, the hospital could face a civil penalty of up to $25,000 per violation of the staffing pattern formula mandated by Question 1.  There would be an additional $25,000 per day if the hospital continues the practice after being notified of an infraction by the Attorney General. This is nuts!

Mere numbers don’t ensure the best care for patients.  What also counts are nurses’ and doctors’ education, experience, skills and empathy, availability of necessary resources and the effectiveness of communications among different practitioners.  Strict ratios have been tried in California and haven’t fulfilled their promise of improved care. 

The bottom line is that complex medical care should not be decided at the ballot box.  A No vote is the way to go on Question One.

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Kavanaugh nomination taps primordial feelings

The U.S. Supreme Court cafeteria on Friday was surprisingly quiet, as if noontime eaters were subdued by the Brett Kavanaugh nomination drama playing out at the Senate Judiciary Committee. Outside on the steps of the august building, hundreds of protesters listened to speeches by women senators urging Kavanaugh be rejected. The peaceful but passionate demonstrators waved signs proclaiming  “Stop Kavanaugh,” “Believe in Women,” and “Kava (insert picture) nope.”  In the warm autumn sun they chanted “Whose court? Our court!” and “wait till November.”

We’re in the grip of a momentous decision that, for the next half century, will affect the lives of all Americans, especially of women.  Not surprisingly then, a majority of Jet Blue passengers going from Boston to D.C.  on Thursday morning were glued to the televised Christine Blasey Ford testimony on the seat-back monitors in front of them.  As I listened to her riveting testimony on CBS,  the man next to me was watching on Fox.  We didn’t share reactions. My eyes were misting as she described her remembered experience.

Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony struck a particularly responsive chord when she said, “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter between the two . . . I was underneath one of them while the two laughed.”  This comment reached deep into the heart of any woman who has ever suffered humiliation from two misogynous men having a sneering and callous laugh at her expense, with or without sexual assault.  Not surprisingly, calls to rape crisis centers have doubled in the wake of Blasey Ford’s testimony.

This situation is so much more than “he said, she said,” and reams have been written about Blasey Ford’s unsophisticated authenticity and Kavanaugh’s duplicitous inconsistencies.  Kavanaugh denies ever attending gatherings like that described by Blasey Ford or others described by Yale classmate Deborah Ramirez, who also claims grossly inappropriate sexual behavior by the nominee.  Numerous writers have cited instances of his apparent lying about his heavy drinking in high school and college, his receipt in 2003 of stolen Democrats’ emails, the meaning of language used in his high school year book. The issue goes beyond whether Kavanaugh drank too much or illegally in his youth and committed sexual assaults to whether he lied under oath and covered up.

What’s equally disturbing about Kavanaugh’s suitability for lifetime tenure on the Supreme Court is the lack of judicial temperament he displayed during his Friday return to the Judiciary Committee. While I understand the stress these accusations have put on  his family and him, he came across as a well coached snorting cauldron of partisan rage.  He railed against the Democrats and called the gathering accusations an expression of Hillary Clinton’s revenge.  Really? Whatever his acuity as a legal scholar, we can rightly question his ability to sit on the nation’s highest court as an independent and fair-minded justice.

I’m not saying that every woman who alleges sexual assault is automatically right, but her allegations should be treated seriously.  The Republican majority on the Senate Judiciary Committee gave lip service to this while making clear that virtually nothing would deter them from approving Kavanaugh. Even Arizona Senator Jeff Flake admits his temporary profile in courage – making his upcoming floor vote contingent upon an FBI investigation – would never have happened if he were facing reelection.  The eventual fate of the nomination probably now rests with a much beleaguered FBI doing a responsible investigation. Still, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said today there will be a vote by the end of this week. As former FBI director James Comey said, “If truth were the only goal, there would be no clock.”

Kavanaugh was right about one thing, that the confirmation process has been “a national disgrace.”  But not for the reasons he suggests.  The advice and counsel role of the Senate has been hijacked for raw partisan reasons, with no openness to new information bearing on the nominee’s suitability.  Those who had refused even to meet with Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland have been hell-bent to rush through Kavanaugh irrespective of the warning lights.

At stake are decades of decisions on wide-ranging issues, and no promise of the fair application of longstanding judicial principles. It’s sobering to consider that, even if Senators Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins rise to the occasion, and Democrats from red states hold firm – and even if the Democrats take the Senate in November – the current Senate could ram through a new Supreme Court nominee like right-to-life zealot Amy Barrett in a lame duck session. To all those who stayed home in 2016, or refused to support Hillary Clinton because she was a deeply flawed candidate, this is a reminder that elections have consequences.

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