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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, January 31, 2007

What were you thinking?

To the marketing wizards at Turner Broadcasting: what planet do you live on?

To the "homeland security" officials in Boston and 10 other cities: how did these packages with tubes and wires hanging out from them manage to be in place for two to three weeks without anyone noticing?

To the general public: be afraid, be very afraid. No, not of the Aqua Teen Hunger Force but rather for what passes as heightened vigilance five-plus years after 9-11 -- and countless false alarms from the Bush administration.

Turner Broadcasting owes the City of Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts what will likely be millions of dollars as a result of the full court public safety press to deal with this insipid marketing ploy. I would suggest the body parts of Turner executives be left in the same places as these "billboards." I'll settle for them losing their jobs.

There's absolutely no way they can ever repay Bostonians stuck in traffic or on the T for hours lost and angst inflicted.

But there's a much larger question for local, state and federal authorities charged with protecting our public safety: how could this have happened? Does anyone who patrols I-93 or Storrow Drive bother looking at the structures?

It's the perfect counterpoint to the high profile, low value searches conducted on the T in the name of protecting the public. Harass people, not buildings?

Oh, and Mr. Mayor, what's wrong with this statement?
“The individuals who might have placed these bombs or these packages should be warned this is a heavy penalty.”
If your role is to assure a scared and nervous city, perhaps you should choose your words a bit more carefully?

The silver lining is these incidents have probably done more than any dirty bomb drill to drive home the point much more needs to be done to prepare first responders for potential crises, crises that will more likely resemble random bombs and devices than dirty bombs at airports.

The after-action reports from today will be fascinating. The crews will probably get high marks for dealing with the events, but the leaders behind the scene will have a lot of explaining to do over how something like this could happen in the first place.

But nothing like the explaining necessary from the nitwits at Turner.

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And now it's Scooter's turn to cry

The inner workings of the Bush administration sausage factory are on display in a Washington courtroom and it is not a pretty picture.

The parade of witnesses at the Scooter Libby perjury and obstruction of justice trial have not be very helpful to Darth Chaney's the erstwhile chief of staff.

Former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer (you remember the guy who suggested reporters could be committing treason by simply doing their job) was rather unhelpful to Scooter's contention that he was too busy to leak. How? By pointing that Libby dropped mention of Valerie Flame over lunch -- the first one they ever had -- and only days before Libby dropped the dime with reporters.

But we're headed for real drama with the appearance of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller -- the Queen of WMD -- and why she did not write about Plame.

Libby's defense attorneys are looking to ask Miller about sources other than Libby -- who she spent 85 days in jail to protect. It's unlikely she'd be willing to offer any additional information -- in fact special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald is now on her side over that issue.

Ultimately, that could be the strategy of the defense team -- put Miller on the stand and force her to refuse additional testimony. That would force the judge to declare a mistrial. And that would prevent the testimony everyone is waiting for: Vice President Richard B. Cheney.

Farfetched? Stay tuned.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Big insults

Memo to South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint: be careful with two-word rebuffs. They have a tendency to get you two words in return.

Strom Thurmond.


Riding that train...

I'm thinking of pitching a new reality TV show: Transit Terror. Join Mary and Donna and Bill and Robert as they ride the mean streets and underground of Boston, forced to make split-second decisions on how and when to pay, where to get off (and avoid being told where to get off).

T general manager Dan Grabauskas and the Globe's Mac Daniel join Simon Cowell and the gang in judging a rider's agility and savvy negotiating the obstacles and the people who make up the nation's oldest transit system.

The theme song is easy.

The spurt of creativity was prompted by this news flash: the T has a boarding policy on the Green Line. The experience recounted by Sue and Katie are par for the course one month (almost) into the new fare system. Shouting, rude drivers in particular.

All doors now open in both directions (except of course when the operator opts to open the rear doors selectively outbound, deciding your stop is one of the losers because heck, it was just opened a stop earlier). Doors that stayed closed on inbound runs now open at every stop -- whether there is a validator or not.

Let's set the show on the B Line (home to BU's finest). Will they open the doors? Won't they? How many get actually jostle and bump to get in the front to pay their fares? How many people get a free ride? Do you wave your pass by the reader or do you tap (after being greeted by the "friendly" personnel?)

Will the brakes burn out and stack people up like cord wood waiting for the five trains right behind? Will the rear door open to the wall in Kenmore forcing you to run to another door before it slams shut and carries you away? Will you be crushed on the wooden railing in Copley Station?

And of course, there are the Charlie Cards themselves. Will it register your fare when you wave, tap or otherwise throw the device at the reader -- or will it record single or multiple fares? (Mrs. OL wonders how she can run through $60 so quickly when she doesn't seem to be riding the buses as much.) Why does the T think change is not valid legal tender?

And of course there's the monthly challenge about to be faced: will you be able to do anything with your card on the first day of the month when the monthly payroll deductions are supposed to be recorded? Or do you have a an expensive, worthless piece of plastic that will enable the operator to yell at you to pay cash or get off?

All of this without a major snowstorm or Red Sox game. We can keep this running for years! Stay tuned, we'll be back for more, right after this word from our sponsor: Toyota.


Monday, January 29, 2007

A true end of an era

The death of Robert Drinan at the age of 86 officially closes the books on an unusual and bygone era of American politics -- the Catholic Church as a force on the left.

Drinan and the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Phillip, were the face of the American Catholic Church to those of us who came of age politically in the '60s. Drinan was the first candidate I worked for, stuffing envelopes. As the Globe notes:

Supporters saw his entering Congress as a logical union of his legal and spiritual vocations. "Our father, who art in Congress" became a popular, if unofficial, campaign slogan.

Yet many of Father Drinan's most vehement detractors were Catholics who opposed him politically because they saw his electoral career as detracting from his priestly calling. He further angered some Catholics with his show of independence from the church, supporting federal funding of abortions and opposing constitutional amendments that would have banned abortion and allowed prayer in public schools.

But as time has proven, they were not in the mainstream of their church. Drinan was forced to resign by Pope John Paul II in 1980 on the premise the church and elected office did not mix.

Months later, the first strong indication that the policy was going to get selective enforcement came when Boston Cardinal Humberto Medeiros offered a pastoral letter injecting himself and the church into the race -- with a call to elect a candidate who opposed a woman's right to choose.

Medeiros' effort backfired -- Barney Frank won his first term in Congress -- and the role of the Catholic Church in American political life changed forever.

But the wise-cracking gay Jew from Newton by way of Hoboken long ago proved himself a worthy successor to the ideals of the quiet, self-effacing Catholic from Boston.

Rest in peace, Padre.


Sunday, January 28, 2007

You get what you pay for, Part II

We've explored what happens when a politician opts to work pro bono. Let's turn our attention now to why people with valuable skills shun the public sector.

Not all public employees are hacks (though the ones that are sometimes manage to garner an awful lot of attention). But public employees are held to a different set of standards than those who toil in what Howie Carr likes to call the Dreaded Private Sector.

I expect Carr to have a field day with the lead stories in the Globe yesterday and today (although we may wonder why the "plucky" Herald missed them. Their hack-o-meters just haven't been working well lately.)

Deval Patrick is offering to sign off on premium pay increases for a number of key legislative committee chairs in exchange for the leadership's support of his proposals to overhaul how state government works. The Globe notes:

House Speaker Salvatore F. DiMasi, the driving force in the Legislature for pay raises, has not been persuaded that that is a fair deal, sources say. The pay raises would cost about $40,000 for each branch, while Patrick is asking for a far more expansive and complex change in government operations and philosophy.

"That's a quid pro quo?" asked one lawmaker who is aware of the proposed deal.

But regardless of the fairness of the deal from DiMasi's standpoint, the proposal shows Patrick is bringing some of the skills he learned in corporate boardrooms -- where talented people are compensated for the time and expertise in areas of importance.

There's a remarkable disconnect between what's fair pay in the public sector and the private sector -- although arguably we all pay for it either through taxes or higher prices for consumer goods and services.

Outrage will run high when Senate President Robert Travaglini say they can't support a family with college-age kids on $90,000 a year. That's why the media is full of speculation that he will jump ship for a much better paying job at the Massachusetts Biotech Council or the Massachusetts Hospital Association -- which are willing to pay upwards of $400,000 annually.

The level of outrage is way in excess of what is heard when corporate leaders haul down huge packages -- even when they are being swept out the door. As Kevin Drum notes:
In 1991 the pay of the average American large-company boss was about 140 times that of the average worker; by last year, it was over 500 times, and growing. Last year's 7.2% rise in the average American boss's total compensation is worth over $400,000—nice work, if you can get it.
Why is the ousted CEO of Home Depot worth $210 million in severance and legislative committee chairs not worth an extra $5,000 or $10,000 a year? I won't get into any lengthy riffs about screw jobs.

People get into public service with good intentions (most of the time). That is one of the reasons salaries are far lower than in the private sector -- their motivation is more than money. But the problems facing the public sector are no easier -- and in many ways more complex -- than those facing far-better compensated private sector leaders.

Those in the public sector also (correctly) face far more scrutiny and demands for accountability -- having your salary published is unnerving but fair game.

Americans have very unusual concepts about the value of leadership. Patrick hauls down $135,000 far less than the $475,000 in base salary he earned as executive vice president and general counsel of Coca Cola. George Bush does not earn a penny of the $400,000 he receives as president, but that is also less than what Patrick made for a position with far less responsibility.

The people who generally benefit the most from government are lobbyists -- pulling down salaries from organizations that in turn pass those costs down the line to the buyers of the goods and services being represented. Think they are watching out for you and me?

So bravo to Patrick, who knows he will take the heat from from right wing radio and its blogosphere allies. But the deal he is proposing could truly benefit taxpayers in the long run if he can bring some rationality and accountability to the state bureaucracy that he is responsible for.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Don't read my lips

So much for bipartisanship. It all depends on the meaning of the word listen.

I was pretty much convinced we were witnessing another don't ready my lips moment when Dick Cheney took to CNN to blame Congress, the liberal media, Iraqis and, most of all Democrats, for the failure to appreciate that we are winning in Iraq.

Robert Gates, channeling his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld, added to my certainty by equating debate with treason. But it was the latest pronouncement from "The Decision Maker" that makes it (as George Tenet would say) a slam dunk.

I remain shocked and awed that after six years George Bush and his cronies still consider the Constitution akin to Kleenex, something to be ignored in their single-minded pursuit of a "unitary executive" otherwise known as a dictatorship.
"I’m the decision maker, and I had to come up with a way forward that precluded disaster."
It's not already a disaster when US troops are targeted as part of an ever-increasingly violent civil war between Sunnis and Shiites, promoted by an Iraqi government that does not want us there?

It is now time for the Democratic Congress to work in concert with Republicans such as Chuck Hagel and John Warner, to craft a meaningful, binding resolution to remind the Decision Maker that he serves at the pleasure of the American people -- who are pretty ticked off right now.

I've never been a big fan of the I-word because if its ability to further inflame right wingnuts. But we're reaching the point where they represent as little as one-quarter of the public. If American men and women continue to die -- along with countless thousands of Iraqis -- simply to appease the hard right, then we have bigger problems on the left than mere "treason."

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You get what you pay for

Former Gov. Mitt Romney and his sidekick, Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, liked to note that they worked for free. I suppose that should have made it a little easier when Romney walked away early, but instead it proved yet again that you get what you pay for.

The Globe leads today with a story about the salaries of top officials at the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector, the quasi-independent state agency charged with implementing the state's universal health care law.

I'm inclined to agree with Health Care for All director John McDonough:
"Compared to what people make in state government, these salaries are high, but not compared to what comparable people make in a commercial insurance world," he said. "If they didn't pay these salaries, I don't believe they would be getting the quality people they need to do this highly complex operation."
My beef is more with the hypocrisy (surprise) of the Romney administration, which was waging a holy war against the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and the Massachusetts Port Authority at the same time he signed off on creating yet another quasi-independent.

I'm not buying (another surprise) the words of Romney mouthpiece Eric Fehrnstrom, who said Romney pushed for the structure because it was the most efficient way for uninsured employees to buy health insurance on a pretax basis.

"The quasi-governmental entity structure was selected due to the singular mission of the Connector, which is to maximize the number of people with insurance," Fehrnstrom said. "No other state agency is tasked with this assignment."

And exactly how does that differ from the mission of operating roads and bridges and airports and harbors? There are other state agencies involved with those tasks (and, to be fair, Romney tried but failed to consolidate the Turnpike Authority with Highways) just as other state agencies deal with insurance and health care.

But wait, there's more to report on the Romney stewardship.

The state Ethics Commission has charged Michael J. O'Toole , a former high-ranking state official, with violating the conflict-of-interest law in a case notable for the large sums of money involved. During a five-day period in March 2003, the commission alleged, O'Toole authorized the payment of $1,118,750 in discretionary grants to five police departments, even though financial reports submitted by those departments had not been reviewed as required. Three weeks later, O'Toole joined Crest Associates, a consulting firm that had reaped large fees for assisting those police departments in obtaining the grants.

If only O'Toole had not taken a state salary.

Then there's the matter of neglect.

No matter how dire the state's fiscal situation (and it's yet to reveal itself in full detail) there is no excuse for neglecting an historic landmark. There was considerable outcry over turning a former air shaft into the marble-floored Great Hall during a previous fiscal crisis. It was resolved by bonding the cost and enhancing an already great building.

Romney displayed his contempt for the building by keeping it in lockdown well after the threat of 9-11 passed. Deval Patrick took the symbolic act of re-opening the building by holding his inauguration on the steps, under the open gate.

Fixing it up will send a strong message about the state's heritage.


Friday, January 26, 2007

This, that and the other thing

Some odds and ends today...
  • Big endorsement: Boy I bet Mitt Romney is quaking in his boots today over word that Paul Cellucci is backing John McCain. This one was highly predictable from the moment Romney shoved aside Cellucci's No. 2 Jane Swift. Undoubtedly of more concern to Mitt is the McCain pickup of Weld-Cellucci and Healey mainstay Rob Gray. If anyone knows Romney's weaknesses (and has no penchant for attack), it's Gray.
  • The aforementioned Mr. Cheney "personality" has never been more vividly on display than in a combative interview with Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday. To still insist we are "winning" in Iraq if only the media would do it's part is denial of the highest magnitude. But it clearly demonstrates who continues to have W's ears. Anyone seriously think the call for bipartisan cooperation is real?
  • Think John Kerry's friends believed in their heart of hearts that he had a chance? The swift shift of Kerry fundraiser Alan Solomont to the Obama camp tells you what you need to know.
  • Marie Parente, are you smoking the same stuff as Dick Cheney? Speaking of someone who needs to make a graceful exit and not compare themselves to overpaid athletes....

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Competition ahead?

The local punditocracy (mainstream version) is apparently feeling some heat while the rest of us shiver in the January chill.

Deval Patrick's plan for a weekly podcast and maybe even a blog comes in the same week that the Boston Globe announces yet more retrenchment, closing its last three foreign bureaus (hey but they still have Danvers!)

Adam Reilly and Jon Keller see potential hazards for the fourth estate in Patrick adopting the 21st Century version of the fireside chat (even though Patrick admits he started a smoky mess rather than a fire in the Corner Office). Keller helpfully offers "corrections" to the Patrick news release.
These weekly addresses will allow the public a glimpse inside the Governor’s office in a new and exciting way.” No, they won’t. They will provide a three-minute dosage of the governor’s latest rhetoric, similar to whatever he’s doling out in his press conferences and speeches.

“I hope to continue the conversation we have started through a weekly podcast.” Sorry, a podcast is not a conversation, it’s a monologue. The blog Patrick is reportedly starting, if it enables reader responses, could be more like a conversation, if in fact the comments are read and there’s a continuing dialogue.

“New podcasts will be added regularly, and will be one of many tools the Governor uses to interact directly with the public.” Swell, and, as I said, smart. But quite frankly, one-way “interaction” is not what most Patrick voters had in mind. They want action, dramatic and swift changes in the modus operandi around here that has working-class people leaving in droves. That will be a function of guts and nerve, not clever technology.
The Statehouse press has had it easy for too long because of governors indifferent to the task of communicating with constituents (some were even indifferent about showing up).

At the same time as technology has advanced, the mainstream media has retrenched -- big time. Add to that television's continuing downward spiral into the fast-cut, "if it bleeds it leads mentality," and the reliance on the very same canned "opportunities" that Keller laments -- is it any wonder a politician will look for new tools to get his or her message out?

To be fair, Keller is one of the few who tries to focus on what's happening under the Golden Dome. But the answer, of course, is to use those same journalistic skills analyzing the podcasts and commenting -- with full identification -- in the blogs.

I wholeheartedly agree that politicians of both parties have gotten away for far too long without having their words put to the test by journalists (WMDs anyone?). But moving into the 21st Century by using new technology should not mean they are now beyond reach.

Nor is the new technology necessarily better than the old for ferreting out the truth. Given Scotto's overheated medium of talk radio, could this story about the Patrick campaign be what he is breathless over? (And a tip of the hat to Dan Kennedy for pointing me in directions I normally don't go!)

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Do the right thing

John Kerry did the right thing, thankfully. But in typical John Kerry fashion, he still doesn't get it.

The junior senator has served 22 years despite what is a rather hefty wave of indifference toward him by Massachusetts Democrats -- and a mutual sentiment from the senator back to the voters. I often thought the most damaging unreported story of the 2004 campaign was the sentiment toward Kerry in his home state.

And by saying the prime reason for his decision to stay in the Senate is to fight for an end to the Iraq war he was for before he was against, Kerry once again is thumbing his nose at his base.

Ted Kennedy has long held the national stage that Kerry aspires to. But there's a major difference between the two: Teddy still remembers who voted for him and works every year on the basic constituent issues. He is known to mayors and selectmen.

John Kerry, it is often said, drops in every sixth year. Try Googling Kerry and Massachusetts elected officials and all you get is foreign -related items.

Kerry has significant fences to mend. The likelihood of a serious challenge is virtually nil (Kerry Healey, puhleeze!) but the junior senator really needs to remember who elected him in the first place.

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The State of the Union is Fragile

The reviews are in -- George Bush is chastened. Seeing is believing from a man who has a long history of saying one thing and doing another.

Whether the topic is health care, gasoline use, health care or Iraq -- not to mention judicial appointments, civil liberties or his views on Democratic loyalty to the nation -- George Bush has a long and distinguished record of speaking out of both sides of his mouth.

So why do we believe him now -- particularly when on the central issue of today, and the issue on which he will be judged by history -- he maintains he's right and we're wrong, polls be damned?

George Walker Bush currently stands at 28 percent in the New York Times-CBS Poll, right down there with Richard Milhous Nixon before his impeachment. Yet, facing a strong bipartisan call for a start of an Iraq withdrawal, Bush calls for increasing troop levels.

(Memo to Dick Cheney: the 'Democrat' alternative is the Iraqi Study Group and a host of other proposals that call for the Iraqis to stand up so that we can let them fight among themselves without killing our men and women).

This is the same man who acknowledged a "thumpin'" after Democrats took Congress and proceeded to offer up a stale John Bolton and staler conservative judges to the new Congress. He backed down only when it became clear he would lose and lose badly. Does that make his words believable? Hardly. Cut and run? Maybe.

The only way to judge this man and his words about the State of the Union is through his actions. And so far, (remember those State of the Union pledges to rebuild New Orleans after Katrina?) he shows himself to be one of the most bald-faced liars in American history.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007


The reason why states look to gambling for revenue is the same one that Willie Sutton offered for a career that included large, unauthorized withdrawals from banks.

But plans by the state of Illinois to sell its lottery falls into the classic trap of gambling -- looking for a big score without considering the long-term prospects.

Talk of casinos is yet again filling the corridors of Beacon Hill as signs of a slowdown continue. Housing prices continue to slide, good news for home buyers and great news for the state long term if it were to continue. But while it's partially good news for homeowners who could eventually see a break in rising property taxes as valuations fall, it's real bad news for elected officials.

Then there are the words of House Speaker Sal DiMasi -- don't expect a gravy train this year.

Coupled with warnings about sagging revenue growth -- and unaffordable "bare bones" mandatory insurance policies, it's clear this is going to be a tough budget year.

But in their haste to find revenue sources, Massachusetts lawmakers shouldn't consider the Illinois route, for all the reasons detailed in the Times story. Unlike casinos, for example, privately held lotteries can't be held to tough standards on where and how to sell "dreams."

But first and foremost, Illinois is going to be looking at chump change when all is said and done. Gambling is a fact of life and will continue until the nukes hit. That means private companies will rake in the bucks well after the sale proceeds are spent for "frills" like education.

Talk about gambling on the future.

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Monday, January 22, 2007

The enemy of my enemy...

... well isn't my friend in this case, but the irony is delicious.

The Globe chronicles of the efforts of gay-bashing activist Brian Camenker to highlight the um, inconsistencies of the Mittser's messages.

The Romney campaign of course, tries to rebut the Newton resident with someone they feel knows their guy the best, someone from Tennessee.
David French, a Tennessee lawyer, wrote a lengthy rebuttal on his website, Evangelicals for Mitt, calling the assertions "unfair and unfortunately misguided attacks against a man who stood -- with real integrity -- against some of the worst excesses of the cultural left."
Word to Mr. French: Camenker is on you side -- he's not a cultural leftie. He's a gay-bashing right wing nut who happens to live in a community with a lot of lefties. Big difference.

But he and a bunch of lefties are on the same page when it comes to highlighting the flip-flips of the former governor. Brian, can you stand it?

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Elbow room

Welcome, Bill Richardson. Good to see ya, Hillary. What's new Barack? John Edwards, I presume you know Tom Vilsack? Chris Dodd, is that really you? Has anyone here seen John Kerry?

The Democratic field is getting a little crowded here -- and there remains the specter of an eighth potential candidate to really shake up the proceedings: Albert Arnold Gore Jr.

Hillary Clinton's announcement that she formed an exploratory committee is resounding non-news. In fact, it's hardly a surprise she chose yesterday, the sixth anniversary of her move from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Nor is it surprising that she starts with a significant lead. Name recognition rules the day at this stage of the game -- witness Rudy Giuliani holding an edge over John McCain with Mitt Romney far behind.

But is Hillary the savior who will lead the Democrats back to the White House? Um, er, not exactly.

The legion of Clinton haters remains strong and ready to respond (even in blog posts about Romney!) A Clinton-topped ticket will prompt as much time spent reflecting on the '90s as it will on the Bush years. Questions about familial dynasties will be louder than those about what the United States must do in the years ahead,

Obama? An interesting candidate with no appreciable record but an encouraging message of hope. Sort of a national version of Deval Patrick. The question of experience may or not be overblown, given the history of "experienced" presidents like George Bush.

In fact, he could represent the true test of the alleged Bush model of CEO with managerial skills who appoints the right people to carry out his vision.

Edwards has some experience around the track and his "Two Americas" still sticks with me -- even more so after another two years of Bush. Cynics will quickly note he shares a major trait with Mitt Romney, good hair, but after that...

Richardson, Dodd and Vilsack each bring different qualities into the field but face a major uphill climb. Kerry? Stranger things have happened.

Which brings us to everyone's favorite Joe Palooka punching bag, the man who really did win before he lost -- Al Gore. As the Globe's Scot Lehigh pointed out last week, why not?

After 20 years on the national scene, Gore is a known quantity: warm earth tones, stiff demeanor and penchant for overstating his real accomplishments.

While he didn't invent the Internet, he saw it's value before many climbed on the bandwagon. Global warming? Hey, even W. seems to be seeing the melting of the ice floes. Iraq?

Experience? Eight years in the White House as an engaged No. 2 (without the Darth Vader streak of the current occupant). Prior to that a long history of service in the House, Senate and even in the military. He certainly knows what it's like to take the punches on the trail and it's hard to believe everything hasn't been brought out into the open.

Democrats have long had the bad habit of eating their young candidates. Gore is one of the few who tried a second time -- and he did get more popular votes than Bush. Kerry's arguments work better for Gore than for himself.

Lehigh is probably right that it comes down to Gore's vision for his epitaph: does he want to be remembered as the guy who won in 2000, or the Harold Stassen of his time.

The Clinton years without the Clinton personal baggage? Interesting thought.


Saturday, January 20, 2007

Romney Care

News accounts of Mitt Romney's "qualifications" for the Oval Office usually include some glowing remarks about how he brokered an innovative health insurance proposal for Massachusetts that is becoming a model for other states. A centerpiece is that he convinced the Democratic Legislature to create a mandate that every citizen have health insurance.

Here's a word of advice to those other states: Don't do it.

Following the old public relations adage of putting out bad news on Friday, the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector released the initial outlines of the "bare bones" plan that Massachusetts residents without employer-based or state-subsidized health insurance will be required to buy.

The only more appropriate day for release would have been Thanksgiving. This is a major league turkey, and that's according to Health Care for All, the fiercest advocacy group in the state for the cause of affordable quality care.

There are two important numbers here: $295, the amount employers with more than 11 workers must pay annually to the Commonwealth for each individual if they don't provide insurance for their employees to purchase.

The other number is $380, the monthly premium for an individual, not counting the $2,000 deductible before coverage would kick in.

That's $3,245 a year for a company with 11 employees -- a fee designed to encourage employer participation, but set at a numbingly low level by Romney administration minions who drafted the regulations.

In the meantime, a single person would need to shell out a bare minimum of $6,560 -- annually in premiums and deductible. That is a numbingly expensive hit to the wallets and pocketbooks of average consumers faced with high costs of housing and transportation.

And remember, this is not the subsidized plan designed for people up to 300 percent of the poverty level. This is the mandated plan, required of everyone as part of Romney's grand bargain that everyone should have health insurance just as they have automobile insurance.

The most likely people to fall into that category are the 20- and 30-somethings who went to college in Massachusetts and work in emerging industries -- many of them small start-up companies. In other words, the future of the state's economic life.

There's obviously a long way to go here, but based on this first pass, it's very easy to see that health insurance will join housing costs and the lack of jobs as prime drivers in sending people out of state.

But look at the bright side -- those businesses not "burdened" by the health care "tax" will be able to grow, even if there's no one to fill the jobs they are supposed to create.

And Mitt Romney wants to do for America what he did for Massachusetts.

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Friday, January 19, 2007

Bet on it

It's becoming more and more obvious that casino gambling will be one of the biggest issues on the table in the coming months.
With Deval Patrick's call for department heads to look for 5-10 percent savings in their budgets, reports that lottery revenues are declining, and "no appetite" for local option taxes such as meal taxes, fiscal 2008 is shaping up as a headache of major proportion.

Probably the most chilling item is the tumble in lottery aid, which forms a solid foundation of the local aid dollars used by cities and towns for police and fire and other basic services.

One of the strongest arguments made in the past against casino gambling is that it would take from the same pool that bets on the daily number, the bigger games and Keno. There is also rightful concern that the lottery is in effect a regressive tax, hitting harder on people who can afford it the least but who are driven by dreams of hitting the lottery and moving onto Easy Street.

I can't recall the studies about who visits Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun but my gut tells me it's not the people who can afford it least. Gasoline, food and lodging are all more expensive than a scratch ticket. But studies do show Massachusetts residents spent nearly $900 million in Connecticut casinos in 2005.

It would be sheer lunacy not to look at reclaiming a part of that revenue stream (not to mention the sales, gasoline and hotel-motel taxes that go along with it). And trial balloons have been floated to put a casino in an area of the state, say Springfield, which is so down on its luck any economic revitalization would be valuable.

And of course there's always the possibility that long-tangled questions about Indian casino gaming will be resolved here and in Rhode Island, siphoning still more cash out of state coffers.

It doesn't ring true for a state with a hugely successful lottery to revert to its Puritan past and feel squeamish about promoting gambling. There are already programs in place to help compulsive gamblers, beef them up with new revenues.

But if the state continues to struggle to find ways to pay for "luxuries" like public safety, public health and education -- and residents keep voting with their feet on where to live and where to play -- there won't be much to worry about in terms of quality of life issues.

Maybe that's the reason that Senate President Robert Travaglini is once again sending mixed signals about staying. New forms of gambling can only help the two largest businesses in his district -- Suffolk Downs and Wonderland.

Like it or not, casino gambling translates into jobs, tax revenues on top of the state's take from the slots and table games and a form of entertainment that's not going anywhere.

It's time for a serious discussion of this issue before the state ranks 50th in terms of quality of life.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Charlie sez...

It takes a cold day to bring out the true T riding experience.

I've been holding my fire on the Charlie Card until I could get a reality check. After all polite "validators" scanning my card at a Green Line stop that had been a "Show and Go" station is unexpected. Particularly when it is sunny and balmy (for January).

You need Boston at its best (or worst) to see how the T really operates. And it doesn't fail.

Reports of frozen fare boxes just add to to list of ways passengers get a free ride.

How about opening all doors at a stop (without a "validator") both outbound and inbound? People are dribbling on board -- especially when snappish operators are busy berating passengers to actually tap the card instead of just bringing it into proximity of the reader. (Is that another thing that happens when they freeze?) Nothing like a good hot temper on a cold day.

And sorry Charlie, but I don't think those big signs telling passengers to pay their outbound fares are going to earn back the cost of production any time soon.

Bone-chilling cold is also a good time to ask: where is everybody? Green Line trains I've ridden seem like ghost towns. I normally ride early, a habit I picked up early to avoid the rush hour crush. Yesterday, even though the stop was fairly crowded, I was able to maneuver the skinny Breda aisles without a great deal of hassle and only got one backpack in my face.

Of course I could have ridden in luxury if I had waited a few more seconds for the two-car train that pulled up right behind, as we were leaving the station.

And what was especially revealing is that most of that traffic got off at the major BU stops. Does that means lots of people called in sick to work yesterday?

Or does it mean commuters are abandoning the T for their cars?

I have a co-worker who did just that. Tired of hassles with commuter rail and navigating the mass of humanity that is North Station (not to mention Green or Orange Line connections), she dropped her card and opted to car pool with her husband. Arrives earlier and happier (and richer) than before.

I am eagerly awaiting the first reports on ridership loss from the new fares. And I would be equally interested in someone enterprising Globe transportation reporter did a survey of parking garages around town to see if more people have joined Dan Grabauskas in using the Personal Line to get to work because the T is not worth the hassle -- financially and literally.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Trouble ahead

The honeymoon is just about over. Inspiring speeches and goodwill can't pay the bills and Massachusetts won't have enough to meet its shopping list -- at least not right away.

Oh, there's more than enough confusion about the state's fiscal picture, But if words paid bills we'd all be richer than our wildest dreams. As Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Mike Widmer noted in yesterday's Globe, the reality has been been awash in political posturing -- from Mitt Romney, Kerry Healey and Tom Reilly.

The saga began more than a year ago when Romney started holding monthly press conferences to announce state tax revenues. He claimed they were rising at a rate that would produce a billion-dollar surplus in fiscal 2006 and called for an immediate income tax cut. During the gubernatorial campaign, Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey and Attorney General Tom Reilly joined the billion-dollar-surplus bandwagon, using the claim to justify their support of a lower income tax rate.

Unfortunately, Romney's assertions had no basis in fact. Although tax revenues in fiscal 2006 did rise by a billion dollars more than estimated, the budget depended on $600 million in reserves, so the actual surplus was much smaller.

Then we had Romney's presidential campaign-motivated declaration that this year's budget is in tough times, prompting him to cut $429 million, cuts Deval Patrick has since rescinded.

And now we have Patrick and his aides saying we may have to phase-in promises like property tax relief, new police and more local aid -- not to mention cut $735 million in the proverbial waste, fraud and abuse.

(Did anyone besides me think he always meant gradual increases and not overnight fixes? And did anyone believe there really was $735 million in waste? There aren't that many gazebos to fund!)

Now we come to fiscal 2008 and the problems are starting to surface on the horizon.

The problem is slower revenue growth -- from a high of 8.2 percent last year to a gloomy projection of 1.8 percent from Patrick's Department of Revenue. Interesting, the rosiest prediction -- 6.4 percent comes form the supply side works believers at the Beacon Hill Institute who never met a tax cut they didn't like.

The ubiquitous Widmer was probably closest to the mark, offering a 3 percent forecast for FY08 compared to 4.2 percent this year.
"I think it would be an achievement if this administration and this Legislature are able to achieve a balanced budget without gimmicks, without drawing on reserves and maintaining the present level of services."
So we are left with the expectations and blame game. What's Mitt's culpability? Did Deval over promise?

I've often thought revenue projections could be done just as effectively with a dartboard. But I've got to go (as you would expect) with Romney and his GOP predecessors as the culprits here.

Let's go back to former Gov. Paul Cellucci's insistence that we could reduce the income tax to 5 percent and not cut a dime. What happened? The bottom fell out of the economy and the Legislature and Romney cut local aid, education funding, public health and safety and just about anything else they could.

Rose-colored glasses -- the kind that see 6.4 percent revenue growth -- don't work in budgeting.

But then again, a 1.8 percent projection is probably a political ploy too -- low ball it so that when things turn out better than expected you can take credit for the success.

The facts remain clear: Massachusetts is bleeding people and jobs. Romney, who ran on a platform of working to attract new businesses to the Commonwealth, did not do so. Once he hit the campaign trail and started bad-mouthing the state, he made that job even harder.

And as long as we bleed people and jobs, tax revenues will not keep pace with rising costs plus dreams. Fewer people mean less income and sales taxes; lower property tax receipts. It's the proverbial vicious cycle.

And that's really what should be the focus of the budget debate -- not whether promises will be delivered immediately or down the road, but whether we have what it takes to build a stronger Commonwealth where there will actually be people to take advantage of those services.

Budgets are political documents as much as they are financial ones. The real Patrick promises -- and tactics -- will be on display then.

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Don't tax me...

It's a lament as old as a nation that declared its fiscal independence by dumping tea in Boston Harbor -- taxes are too high but the budget problems are the other guy's problems.

When one year ends, governments ring in the new with a budget debate and the age-old question of how are you going to pay for "frills" like police, fire, education and garbage pickup. When that new year brings in new leaders at the state and federal level, the political jockeying becomes fierce.

On the state level, Gov. Deval Patrick is facing the reality of campaign promises bumping up against fiscal realities. At the federal level, George Bush is trying to play offense with virtually no cards left in his hand.

Patrick's dilemma is challenging. Bush's posturing is as infuriating as it is laughable.

With estimates about the fiscal 2008 revenue picture as murky as Boston Harbor used to be, Patrick is scrambling to find a way to live up to three pledges -- increased local aid, more cops on the street and property tax relief. His suggestion, made to the Massachusetts Municipal Association -- allow more local options, like higher meals taxes.

While the idea may have brought smiles to the face of Boston Mayor-for-Life Tom Menino, it is an option is going over like a lead balloon with restaurant owners.

"If all the other tax rates for all other industries were fixed at 5 percent, it would be very unfair for the state to charge a premium for one particular industry," said John Nessel, president of Restaurant Resource Group, a Lexington financial management consulting firm. "That’s like a 60 percent premium over all other industries."
And somewhat surprisingly, Patrick has also received push back on a call to make criminals pay a "safety fee" to finance his call for more police officers on the street.

Leslie Walker, executive director of Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, which represents inmates, said about 85 percent of convicted criminals in Massachusetts earn less than $11,000 a year at the time of their convictions. In prison, only about 10 percent of inmates work, earning $1.50 a day.

"While this may sound logical initially," Walker said of the proposed fee, "most defendants are indigent and are already assessed a number of fees. Those who are sent to prison have to pay to see doctors, and get haircuts, and who ends up paying? Their families."

Personally, I cringe now when I see my property tax bill and I am a frequent restaurant-goer. But I have the option to dine out. I also have the option not to commit crimes.

But Patrick should be given credit for trying to tackle the problem head-on -- earning criticism from lobbyists for restaurant and convicts means he's probably doing something right.

George Bush's answer to the gigantic hole he has blown in the federal budget is also timeless, if far less inventive: blame the other guy.

Bush is a firm believer in former Senate Finance Committee Chairman Russell Long's succinct description of tax policy: "Don't tax me, don't tax thee; tax that fellow behind the tree."

The Washington Post reports W.'s answer to the budget chasm is, surprise, blame the Democrats.

The man (and the party) that has given billions in tax breaks to the richest 1 percent of the country and wasted countless trillions more on a reckless war in Iraq, thinks the public is gullible enough to blame the Democrats if Congress doesn't balance the budget (by ripping the heart of our domestic spending).

You know what? He's probably right. Unless, of course, that fellow behind the tree gets tired of paying taxes.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Actions speak louder...

A central tenet of Republican conservative philosophy is that work is better than welfare (at least for people if not corporations). So it's interesting to see how a welfare-to-work program, laden with "incentives" for business, has fallen flat on its face.

The Globe notes a centerpiece of the state's efforts to "end welfare as we know it" lies in disrepair today -- the result of endless rules aimed at employers who were supposed to use cash incentives (you know, publicly funded handouts) to put people to work.

And what, you may ask, is a common thread to this story: benign (or malignant) neglect from a series of four Republican governors whose party espouses the tough love approach toward workers, if not employers. Not to mention a distaste for government "red tape."

The Globe notes how the 1984-ishly named Department of Transitional Assistance failed at the basics, like letting employers know there was a program in place. Listen to the longtime president of the state's largest retail trade association:
Nobody has promoted it to me or my members," said Jon Hurst, who has been head of the 2,700-member Retailers Association of Massachusetts for 16 years.
For those who knew about the program, the risks-rewards ratio was out of whack, the Globe reports, noting that under the program, employers who agree to give a welfare recipient a full-time job receive a $2.50-an-hour wage subsidy in the first year. If that employee is kept on after the first year, the employer receives a maximum $1,200 annual tax credit (with no wage subsidy) depending on how long the employee stays.

"The tax credit in and of itself will not be a determining factor in who gets hired," said William Nofsker, a Haverhill businessman who chaired a welfare-to-work advisory committee in 1996 under Governor William F. Weld. "The perk does not create jobs."

So we have tax credits -- but no training programs. Requirements that say education can't qualify as work, then failing to generate the jobs that can.

Maybe Mitt Romney wants to talk about this success on the campaign trail when he's not flip-flipping about some other "deeply held" conservative value.

Weld. Cellucci. Swift. Romney. Four Republican governors looking to teach responsibility (when they weren't looking for better jobs for themselves). It will be interesting to see what the "tax and spend" liberals can do to get people into productive jobs.

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L'etat, c'est moi, redux

The utter contempt for the Constitution displayed by W. and company -- even after five years -- continues to astound me.

I skipped "60 Minutes" and George Bush's declaration of war against Congress if they try to exercise their somewhat atrophied oversight powers and hold him accountable to the will of the people.
"I fully understand they could try to stop me from doing it. But I've made my decision. And we're going forward."
It's not so much the "facts on the ground" as it is the unchastened tone of defiance. It's entirely possible the rubber stamp Republican Congress did grant the cash to allow the "surge" to take place.

But the American people, by throwing those bums out, issued a loud call for a change from business as usual. It obviously hasn't reached W. or Darth Cheney, who appeared in his secure location, Fox News, to thumb his nose at Democrats -- and voters:
"I have yet to hear a coherent policy out of the Democratic side, with respect to an alternative to what the president's proposed in terms of going forward," he said.
Perhaps you weren't paying attention when the bipartisan Iraq Study Group issued a call for diplomacy and withdrawal?

Maybe you need the help of the Pentagon and the CIA to spy on the American people to learn what they want?

I ranted awhile back about the administration's utter contempt for the constitutional rights of American citizens, so there's nothing new here either -- except for the stunning inefficiency with which they are trampling the Constitution.

For better or worse, the Patriot Act authorizes the FBI to issue national security letters. And Congress created the post of Director of National Intelligence to coordinate all spying foreign and domestic.

So why did the Pentagon and the CIA engage in questionable legal tactics to obtain information that should reside in a central repository (even one put together by the FBI, aka, Freaking Bumbling Incompetents)?

Isn't that the same kind of incompetence that allowed everyone to miss to work of a few competent FBI agents in the days prior to 9-11?

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

But the secret decoder ring is safe....

Leave it to that "enterprising" Boston Herald to get to the bottom of the liberal conspiracy.

The Herald informs us today that Stacy Amaral of Worcester, quoted by Deval Patrick in his inaugural address, is a long time supporter of Ben LaGuer -- you know the rapist who conned Patrick, John Silber and William Styron, among others, into fighting for his innocence, at least until the DNA tests came back.

Gosh, we've been exposed. We probably need to retreat back underground until the heat dies down and we can relaunch our plot to make society safe for criminals and Democrats.

And I'm glad to see that only the liberal media is biased.

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Mushy and mendacious

Say this for George Bush -- at least he has firm beliefs and sticks to them. Even when he's the last person in the world to believe in it.

Mendacious Mitt Romney must have been an acrobat in a past life for all the flip-flops he has performed in his quest for the White House. First it was a woman's right to choose, then gay rights, followed by no-new tax pledges. Now it's guns. What's next? He's not a Red Sox fan?

It is truly astonishing in this age of instant fact-checking that the former governor continues to change his stance on what -- for most normal people -- are deep and heartfelt convictions and then tries to insist nothing has changed. What this reveals about his core values should be concerning to everyone -- not just liberal critics like me.

The pattern outlined in today's Globe story is consistent -- he was for gun control before he was against it.

Today, as he explores a presidential bid, Romney is sending a very different message on gun issues, which are far more prominent in Republican national politics than in Massachusetts.

He now touts his work as governor to ease restrictions on gun owners. He proudly describes himself as a member of the NRA -- though his campaign won't say when he joined. And Friday, at his campaign's request, top officials of the NRA and the National Shooting Sports Foundation led him around one of the country's biggest gun shows.

Romney says he still backs the ban on assault weapons, but he won't say whether he stands by the Brady Bill. And after the gun show tour, his campaign declined to say whether he would still describe himself as a supporter of tough gun laws.

Maybe he thinks the law is about Tom Brady?

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Where have I heard that before?

A lazy Saturday calls for a lazy recap of favorite subjects, what is probably known in other circles as beating the same dead horse:

  • The duplicity of Mendacious Mitt is starting to attract more attention. Check out this Associated Press account -- or better yet this Herald look at the packaging of the Mittser (thanks to BMG since the Herald has already put the story behind the $$$ wall)
  • Where's the quid pro quo for the donations to the Patrick inaugural? And while the Globe very nicely gave us the latest hyperventilation of GOP boss Brian Dodge, they only gave us "some" of the donors. What about running the full list on boston.com and letting us judge for ourselves? Wouldn't that be a good use of the politics blog that hasn't been updated for two days, as of this writing?

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Last one out, please turn off the lights

In the final scene of the iconic Mary Tyler Moore Show, WJM-TV producer Mary Richards -- fired from her job -- looks wistfully at the empty newsroom, turns out the lights and walks away.

That scene has already been repeated at WLVI-TV in Boston and may soon be reality TV (and print) for other media outlets here: WCVB-TV just lost reporter David Boeri and 18 others from behind the scenes through layoffs, buyouts or folks just seeing the writing on the wall; WBZ-TV, struggling with its identity, has eliminated its freelance budget and faces impending layoffs this year.

On the print side of the house, the Boston Herald carefully chronicles the steady drip, drip drip of positions and space on Morrissey Boulevard -- including the latest decision to jettison 19 positions at The Boston Globe and Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

If only the Herald were as diligent in marking the depopulation of its own newsroom.

The biggest question about the Globe's latest move is why did it come with editor Marty Baron out of town?

Any one who reads the Boston papers on dead trees can see what has happened. The newshole has shrunk to embarrassing levels. What used to take 30 minutes or more to read in the Globe can usually be dispensed with in 10 minutes or less. The Herald's descent into tabloid hell has been amply chronicled here.

On the TV side, local stations are rushing to the bottom with a mish-mash of fires, accidents and hero victim stories. Serious coverage of state government is non-existent across the media.

The suits will tell you that they are giving people what they want: shorter articles for harried readers (I'm giving up my newspaper reading time for this posting); human interest stories that tear at the heart strings.

In the meantime, Massachusetts had a series of four governors who basically quit work on the job and walked away. The federal government is headed by a tone deaf man who places his legacy above people's lives. And Paris Hilton and Britney Spears dominate the airwaves, print and websites.

The impending changes at the Globe don't augur well -- even if some things get moved to the web. The vapidization of television news (and that of course includes the national fascination whether Katie Couric will or won't make it at night) is already well along, pushed by the pathetic competition among cable TV outlets to sensationalize a sneeze.

The media moguls might argue you get what you pay for -- TV and the web are, for the most part free and ever increasing parts of the newspapers are too when you read them on the web.

But those moguls' argument lose water when you realize the cuts come in defense of "slipping" profit margins -- that is margins that are slipping below 20 percent. They aren't squeezing as many last drops out of the cows.

Eventually, we will get what we pay for -- freebies from people like me (and others with less actually training in news).

Oh Lou.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

"Ancient history"

Faced with evidence of his flip-flops (a much nicer word than duplicity), Mitt Romney reacted with the one political skill he truly possesses -- more fast talking.

Yes, Mendacious Mitt says that he is grayer, heavier and wiser now than he was 13 years ago when he tried to outflank Ted Kennedy on the left. That everything he said was inoperative because he has learned the truth.

Bull feathers.

George Bush can at least claim being "born again" after the age of 40 for the change from his young and irresponsible ways. Mitt Romney only has political expediency to fall back on.

Let's be blunt. For a man with religious roots as lifelong and deep as Romney's appear to be, core values don't just change after the age of 40. To take both sides on issues like gay marriage and the right to choose in the space of 13 years requires either a massive life-changing experience or a streak of opportunism as deep and as wide as the Iraq fiasco.

We're certainly not privy to a life-changing experience. That leave only one choice -- outright expediency.

Romney urges conservative voters to check out his record. I heartily agree. A visit to Romney is a Fraud will be an eye-opener.

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The check is in the mail

Trust me, I've got it right this time.

That is the gist of the Bush message that more American lives and taxpayers dollars will end the violence in Iraq and bring stability to a country in the middle of a civil war so vicious and a government so incompetent that it couldn't carry off an execution without messing up.

And of course, the proper response is "why should we trust you now?" You've lied for five years, you're still lying now about the mistakes and I suspect you'll be questioning your opponents' patriotism by week's end.

Defying the will of American voters, sound advice from senior officials and the military high command and the very puppet government we're trying to prop up, George Bush instead will hold his breath and turn blue to prove he is right. If more American soldiers die in Iraq -- or more taxpayers dies from federal neglect in New Orleans, well, "stuff happens."

Headlines that trumpet "Bush admits errors" give him way too much credit. He "admitted" that he didn't listen to generals who told him to send more troops initially. He did not admit to lying about the very foundations of his travesty: that Iraq held weapons of mass destruction; that Saddam Hussein was in league with Osama bin Laden; that Americans would be safer and well-respected around the world.

Nor did he admit to the mistakes of those for whom he allegedly takes responsibility: Dick Cheney, who said we would be greeted as liberators; Donald Rumsfeld, who continued to blame others, from Gen. Eric Shinseki to Condi Rice, to name just a few, for the "stuff."

But by gosh, Mitt Romney supports him.

Just to prove he was right last fall when he and hired thug Karl Rove called opponents Defeatocrats, cut-and-runners and offered other less savory allegations about our patriotism, George Bush is gambling he will be proven right in the face of overwhelming "facts on the ground."

How many more American men and women will die for this incredible arrogance?

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Deval to Press: Pay Up!

It was a throwaway quote is a Statehouse News Service story (subscription required) that no one in the media seemed to pick up on:
Seeking to allay worries about new spending initiatives like the statewide service corps while he is projecting a $1 billion budget gap next fiscal year, Patrick joked to reporters, “No one is interested in wasting money or spending money frivolously. We have to look at everything – including the fact that you don’t pay rent for the space in this building."
Amid all the talk about $1 billion budget gaps -- and "wasteful" spending on the arts -- Patrick trotted out one of the oldest, dirtiest little secrets under the Dome -- the press doesn't pay rent for the space it occupies.

Oh the space certainly is not lavish -- and reporters from my time did our best to keep it that way by preserving the campaign detritus that gave the space its "charm."

But what is lacks in fresh paint it makes up for in accessibility: next to the House gallery; steps from the Senate gallery; and immediately above the governor's office on two floors.

It was a quiet point sometimes noted -- why are "we" getting a free ride, when our colleagues in places like Albany pay rent?

The payments need not be large -- who knows if the Globe and Herald could afford them? But they should be symbolic. The media is working under the taxpayers' roofs doing the taxpayers' business. But they are also using state phone trunk lines and occupying space that could be used for official business.

But most of all, the media is getting a free handout from government. Why not write about that enterprising Herald reporters?

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The I'm Not Listening Tour

The nation's voters -- through polls and actual votes in November -- expressed strong support for the notion of getting the US out of Iraq. The Iraq Study Group recommended the US use diplomacy while starting to disengage. Even some Republicans, not to mention generals, are in favor of extricating the nation from that quagmire.

So what's W. going to propose? A "surge" of course.

The man who shrugged off his service, pushed by a man who had "other priorities", is poised to committed thousands of additional men and women to prop up an Iraqi government riven by sectarian strife so deep they generated sympathy for the war criminal when the put a noose around Saddam Hussein's neck.

In addition, Bush is looking to commit billions of dollars for make work jobs for Iraqi citizens to rebuild Baghdad -- while New Orleans continues to struggle to cope with the aftermath of Katrina.

It seems like a grotesque understatement to ask: what's wrong with this picture?

Bush is looking for his "legacy" -- or at the very least the ability to push off the "who lost Iraq" question to his successor in the Oval Office. His call for sacrifice will ring hollow -- as will his claims that we can "win" an unwinnable, brutal civil war.

If George Bush truly believes that Americans must continue to sacrifice for his noble cause, here's a suggestion: how about starting with his daughters?

Isn't it time that Jenna and Barbara Bush stand up for their country and enlist for service in Iraq? Or will they prove that the apple doesn't really fall far from the tree?

I think we all know the answer to that.

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Reality check

The parties are over (despite Herald cheap shots) and its time for reality to settle in on Beacon Hill. And that requires matching Deval Patrick's campaign promises with Mitt Romney and the Massachusetts Legislature's budget realities.

And the facts are that while fiscal '07 appears to be on track despite some presidential campaign trail antics from Mitt Romney, there are trouble signs up for '08. And on his real first day, Patrick took a closer look at two of his major promises: more cops on the beat and property tax relief.
Governor Deval Patrick, faced with a surprisingly tight budget situation, is tempering some of his campaign promises, saying yesterday that he may have to stretch his much touted plan for 1,000 new police officers over several years and stabilize, rather than cut, property taxes.
The exact cause of fiscal '08 uncertainty isn't really clear. Is it unsustainable growth built into the current budget or an over reliance on capital gains taxes as opposed to payroll taxes? While no one other than true policy geeks care to argue the whys at length, the simple message is the warning flags are up and are being heeded.

While there will be howls of "broken promises" (no doubt from the same people accusing Patrick of overspending), the idea that things can be spread out over four years is a sound one. The culture wars being fanned by the Herald's "enterprising" staff are not.

Let's leave aside the question of how $438,000 or even $13.4 million is a drop in the $25.7 billion budget bucket. Instead, let's look at the fact that a program that occupies Cambodian gang bangers so they are not on the streets might be the equivalent of a cop or two (second item).

And while it's true, as the unnamed legislative source (inside the Republican leadership?) says that "there is no Cambodian folk dancing crisis in the state," handpicking seemingly easy targets without doing adequate reporting is NOT the way to attack the problem.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

The view from Room 456

Deval Patrick begins his first full week in office today and Adam Reilly has some interesting thoughts on how the governor will deal with the Fourth Estate. But while the analysis is sound, it misses one key perspective: how time, technology and industry adjustments have changed the role of the Statehouse press corps.

Recent readers may not know that I'm a recovering political reporter, someone who traipsed around Statehouse corridors in search of "the story." But that was literally a long time ago -- when the Globe, the Herald AND the major Boston TV station maintained a regular presence under the Golden Dome.

That all changed after the election of Bill Weld. Consultants who long argued that readers and viewers didn't care for stories about government finally won the day in cash-strapped media management suites. Technology -- principally the rise of the Web -- also gave politicians the tools to do what they longed to do, go over the heads of reporters and directly to the public.

I'm guessing that the first reporter quoted by Reilly -- who declared "I think Patrick’s goal is to let as many people as possible decide what they’ve seen. What that does is, it diminishes the role of the media as interpreter" -- is a product of the same era. Because governors, mayors and selectmen long ago learned to do that.

They have been aided and abetted by slow-moving newsrooms. To this day, boston.com fails to take advantage of the enormous resources available to the Globe to cover state government -- which after all, is all about making decisions on how to spend tax dollars. But state government has a major impact on a person's day from the time they take out that Charlie Card or drop dollars into a Mass. Pike toll basket.

Today, Google is the best tool to find out what the the governor Legislature are doing. Blue Mass. Group and Hub Politics are where the issues are debated -- not the editorial pages and the letters to the editors column.

Talk radio initially filled that role too, although I would argue Howie Carr's predictable rants are far less effective in moving public opinion than Jerry Williams was in his prime. And its interesting that Reilly doesn't raise an eyebrow in allowing NECN's Jim Braude -- founder of the Tax Equity Alliance of Massachusetts and one of the best advocates around -- to use the word "us" in describing today's media.

So, it's also interesting to see all the fall-out from Patrick's speech to the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association last month where he urged attendees to "put their cynicism aside" and embrace the new spirit of hope created by his election.

Perhaps the only foolishness was Patrick's belief that reporters could -- or should -- ever put aside their cynicism. What he accomplished with that speech was an extremely short honeymoon.

Almost on cue -- abetted by political operatives like state GOP executive director Brian Dodge -- reporters began calling out Patrick on things such as the length of his inaugural festivities and who is paying for it. Without evidence of an misdeed or potential misdeed.

But the Statehouse press corps should not be fretting about attempts by the new governor to manipulate them. They have been manipulated for more than a decade now -- taken in by Bill Weld's charm and marginalized by Mitt Romney's machine

So let's just say I'm skeptical of Herald editor Joe Sciacca's spin, especially a suggestion that a 50-60 percent favorability rating is fragile when the previous occupant of the Corner Office had a 50-60 percent unfavorablity:
“It seems like he’s kind of pouring the foundation for a media strategy that essentially marginalizes the press — that says the people are on Deval’s side, and it doesn’t matter what the cynical press corps says. That’s a risky strategy. I think Deval comes into office with a relatively fragile favorability rating — his numbers fluctuated between 50 and 60 percent favorable in polling done in the final weeks of the campaign — and we’ve seen his favorability slip pretty quickly when he’s under intense scrutiny.”
Patrick is certainly to "blame" for raising expectations and has a heavy burden on his shoulders to deliver. Maybe there was a certain (if foolish) calculation made to rouse the sleeping lions of the press from hibernation.

We learned during the campaign and its aftermath that however well-intentioned bloggers might be, they are not journalists. We will all benefit if the real journalists start doing their thing again -- which is comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. And that seems to be Patrick's goal too.

UPDATE: As if on cue, Howie Kurtz offers an example of how far the candidates are ahead of the media when it comes to offering views unencumbered by media "interpreters."

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Right Stuff

It's only fair that, as a serial Mitt basher, I try to explain why I feel he would make a bad president (aside of course from his non-existent record as governor!) So, in answer to a question, let me try to explain what I think it takes to be president-- and offer some examples of related to past and present hopefuls.

I start with the standard dodge, appropriating Justice Potter Stewart's description or pornography -- I know it when I see it. It's extremely hard to put together a list of pluses and minuses to describe the perfect president.

Mitt Romney does not have it because he is not a leader. The best presidents were leaders, men who could rally people around a cause or an ideal -- or lead through a crisis or hard times. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln. Franklin Roosevelt. And yes, Ronald Reagan.

Leaders also inspire confidence and respect, even if you disagree with them (as I did with virtually everything Reagan stood for and did). While he would not be one of my greats, he passed the test for a majority.

Romney, on the other hands, is a panderer, a flip-flopper, who says and does what he feels is what an audience wants to hear. The same complaint has been lodged against Bill Clinton, John Kerry and a host of presidents and presidential wannabes.

Good presidents are good communicators -- they listen and learn. Good presidents can be firm in their beliefs but willing to take into account the views and opinions of others. They are not hamstrung by ideology or just plain stubbornness -- like the current Oval Office occupant.

And good presidents are made through learning from their life experiences. Harry Truman probably falls into this category.

So what about the current crop of hopefuls?

As I said, Romney has no solid core of values, doesn't listen and has an amazingly short attention span if you look at how quickly he abandoned his job. Like Bill Weld running for governor, the challenge is in the chase. The job itself is a bore to be left to others.

Barack Obama? Too soon to tell. Learning and his applying life experiences will be crucial.

John Edwards? Intriguing. His "Two Americas" speech lays out a strong core beliefs. Interesting life experience, though skeptics might question whether going into trial law was the best way to carry out his beliefs.

Hillary Clinton? Doubtful. For starters she is too polarizing a figure. But her personal story has some good dramatic elements -- Goldwater "girl" to cuckolded wife -- and she is solid in her policy beliefs, even if they antagonize some.

John Kerry? Nope. Non-existent communications skills and a life story that virtually no one can identify with. That and an abominable track record.

Rudy Giuliani? Nope. He's a one-hit wonder who did a good job with the post 9-11 trauma in New York City but managed to infuriate a large segment of the population during the remainder of his term.

John McCain? A hero to be sure. But his drift from "maverick" to mainstream" raises more questions than it answers.

The ultimate fun of presidential pontificating is that the process is so entirely subjective. Your opinion is every bit as valid as mine (and in some cases, probably more so). Let the fun begin!

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

"The dog ate my homework"

Tom Finneran's apology upon leading guilty to obstruction of justice sound almost as improbable as his denial of playing a role in the redistricting process that includes changes in his own district.

The Globe reports Finneran told the judge he was angry when he took the stand on Nov. 14, 2003 in the case brought by the Black Political Caucus and other voting rights groups. He was insulted, he said, by accusations that he was involved in a racist redistricting plan that "whitened" his district, the 12th Suffolk, by adding precincts from Milton to his Mattapan base.

"For 26 years I had represented a district that was overwhelmingly African-American, and I took great pride in my representation of that district," Finneran told the judge. "I was offended by the accusations."

Attorney Richard Egbert offered his client was suffering physically that day and had come to court with a "bad attitude." Finneran had just dropped off his wife, Donna, at a hospital for medical tests, Egbert said, and was experiencing pain in his hip. He was scheduled to undergo hip replacement surgery a couple of weeks later.


Tommy Finneran was one of the most gifted political players in recent Massachusetts history. A tough hide allowed him to brace for impact when he played hardball (which he did frequently). While he has be accurately described as a charming rogue (and he is not a racist), he is a master player in firm control of his surroundings.

I can accept that he was in pain and worried about his wife. But to allow his personal feelings and pain to override his judgment? That's hard to swallow from a man who has always presented himself as a master of his surroundings.

I was encouraged to re-read Harvey Silverglate's view on the saga written shortly after it began. It is truly a solid piece of prognostication -- predicting a plea bargain as the only way to take Finneran down. I certainly agree that Judge Bruce Selya and US Attorney Michael Sullivan do fit the role of out-of-control judge and ambitious prosecutor. And I have no doubt that perjury is a tough thing to prove: why else would Sullivan offer the deal?

But I'm struck by the claim Finneran was worried about being seen as too powerful. Really? The ability to exact revenge from those who were 'agin him was the essence of Finneran speakership. The back benches of the House were littered those who didn't go along with Terrible Tommy.

Should perjury charges have been brought the slippery foundation that Silverglate describes? In a non-political environment, no. But Finneran and Sullivan (a former Republican House member) are political animals as was the topic in question.

There are a couple of old saws here that are appropriate. A competent prosecutor can indict a ham sandwich. And bad cases make bad law.

But there seems to be some justice here -- poetic if nothing else -- in watching the fall (and now the potential loss a respectable job) of a man inflicted with such a bad case of hubris that he thought he was above the law.

Bernie Law got a no-show job. The verdict is still out on George W. Bush. Tommy Finneran got caught being too cute. It may not be criminal, but as he admitted,
"In volunteering to testify, I was quickly drawn into political and combative questions which I answered in a political and combative manner. That was my mistake and no one else’s and I will regret that mistake for the rest of my life."
That makes him better than those other guys and I give him credit for that.

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