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Massachusetts Liberal

Observations on politics, the media and life in Massachusetts and beyond from the left side of the road.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

I can't answer that...

It's not often that political watchdog groups make, well, common cause, with the people they watch over. So this may be a day when you check the thermometer in Hell.

The State Ethics Commission new advisory on political speech is, like most things from the commission, well-intentioned. But the reality is it is impractical and unenforceable. And it really does give politicians an easy out when they want to sidestep tough questions.

The incident that triggered the ruling was egregious (but hardly unusual). Mitt Romney stepped out of his office and laid into the selection of John Edwards and John Kerry's running mate. To say it was impromptu would be to invite a huge belly laugh.

Time was when the outer door to the Corner Office was the single best place to engage a governor in an impromptu press conference. Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis once met the press (along with Corner Office visitor Mick Jagger) outside the door in one of the more memorable Dukakis appearances.

The exchanges there were more free-wheeling (OK, that one include the very practiced but poorly delivered line where Dukakis said, unconvincingly that "it's only rock 'n' roll but I like it"). There was little time to plan any comment beyond a broad outline and there was no guarantee what questions would be.

Often it would be the only opportunity to "ambush" a governor or legislative leader about a topic they did not want to address -- taxes and budgets for example -- two highly charged topics where the line between policy and politics was blurred if not invisible.

Any time a chief executive used the press briefing room two flights down, the event could be (and was) stage managed. Many times the room could be packed with more political supporters than reporters.

Clearly political events have always been held outside "the building," sometimes on the steps, others at nearby venues. A simple rule was that Statehouse reporters didn't like to travel far so accommodate them.

This Ethics Commission advisory changes much of that and instead of "cleaning up" government as the commission is supposed to do, it has the potential for "clamming up" instead.

Tough questions (involving budgets and taxes) can now be answered with "That's a political question and I can't talk about that here." And how do you draw a distinction between a clearly political speech delivered at the House podium or on the Senate floor from one delivered on the steps.

Common Cause executive director Pam Wilmot, a long-time (and laudable) thorn in the side of Bay State politicians had it right when she questioned the impact in comments in The Globe:
''It could imply that holding a charity golf tournament during work hours is acceptable and would not be prohibited," said Wilmot, who said removing politics from the State House is ''like baking cake without flour. The separation between governing and politics isn't a natural one for politicians," she said. ''Where rules can be defined up front, the easier it is for candidates themselves and the public to know what is expected."
There are many, many things wrong with politics today, from financing to hateful speech to corruption. Cleaning that up is far more important than giving politicians another opportunity to dodge the handful of tough questions they receive.

PS -- Nice to agree with Jon Keller for a change.


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