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Massachusetts Liberal

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

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Do as I say...

Let's see now. Southboro is holding a $100 a plate fund-raiser to buy a fire truck. Saugus is cutting back on snow plowing (no word is they will go to a pay to plow system on individual streets.) Worcester is graduating new police cadets in order to lay them off.

At the same time, the Cape Cod Commission has floated the idea of charging tolls to cross the Sagamore and Bourne bridges while Senate leaders reject the notion of "Boston elites" calling for a 19-cent a gallon hike in the gasoline tax.

Those same Senate (and House) leaders, by the way, who are sitting on a $32 million "reserve" account that shields them and their staffs from the pain taking place elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

Tell me again who the "Boston elites" are Sen. Steven Baddour, D-Methuen.

Comment here and elsewhere raise very valid fears by non-Boston, non-elites about the fairness of paying for the Big Dig and the MBTA (which amount to a dime on the Patrick proposal). The really bad idea of tolls on the Cape Cod bridges are another representation of that unhappiness.

While I would still argue there is a broad-based need to solve a problem that threatens the state's financial stability, I think we need more debate than a snippy remark by a legislator whose constituents have the ability to dodge playing their part by doing business across the state lines.

But more to the point, it requires debate by lawmakers who have to share the overall pain -- and not hide behind "prior appropriations continued" to avoid layoffs.

That $32 million can pay for a lot of fire trucks, and police officers and snow plowing among the non-Boston "elites."

If lawmakers want to talk the talk, the least they can do is walk the walk.

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Ripped from Rush's talking points

Glad to see the GOP congressional leaders are brimming with new and innovative ideas to counteract the economic meltdown perpetrated on their watch.

Bringing back McCarthyism and witch hunts may be close at hand as the GOP tries to spread the "socialism" menace.

I'm still waiting for the really appropriate headline:

"Bush drives U.S. toward bankruptcy"

I'm not holding my breath-- but maybe there's hope in the way headline writers so easily fall into talking points speech.

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Friday, February 27, 2009

Some elephants do forget

Listening to the debate and analysis coming out of Washington, I can't help being struck by one fact: Republicans seem to have been struck by the largest reported case of amnesia in recorded history.

Whether it's John Boehner standing up for fiscal responsibility or Bobby Jindal using Katrina as an example of the effectiveness of federal action, the Elephant Party seems to be living in a bizarro world.

And despite what some of my liberal friends might think, Barack Obama is not turning his back on the promises he made while campaigning.

We must try to change direction because the policies over the last 30 years -- and particularly the last eight -- have failed. Tax cuts for the rich have not goosed the economy as suggested by Reaganomics and supply siders.

They created massive deficits, widened the gap between rich and poor and generated reckless behavior among corporate and financial "leaders" who put themselves above everyday people. Those are the roots of the meltdown -- despite all the best efforts of Rush and his GOP spinmeisters to change the subject.

Anyone who looks at the current mess and suggests the solution is more of the same is putting politics and ideology over the common good.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Beacon Hill time

You know things are bad when the watchdogs are making excuses. Or the guys relegated to the back benches by the latest power shift.

The Globe reveals the dirty little secret around the Statehouse (no, not that Gardner Auditorium is a dump): Massachusetts is burning and our leaders are playing Nero with fiddles. (Of course, I wrote about it last week, but then again, I don't have the power of the former paper of record.)

Emergency budget cuts. Ethics reform. Transportation overhaul. A fiscal 2010 budget nightmare.

And a week off for school vacations.

The Globe's Matt Viser leans on the ever reliable Statehouse News Service to tally up the "work." The House has met 19 times since January for a tad under 19 hours; the Senate has been in session 16 times for a shade under 11 hours.

Not that Deval Patrick was setting land speed records in assembling and filing a transportation restructuring bill.

But at least Patrick presented lawmakers with emergency 9C budget cut proposals and a comprehensive proposal to toughen the state's ethics laws. And he has also filed a fiscal 2010 budget.

All of which are sitting. Waiting.

There is action behind the scenes to be sure. The staffs of the House and Senate Ways and Means committees have been at the 12-plus hour days for most of this calendar year, poring over the Patrick plan and working up their respective chambers' own spending plans. These are the unsung and unseen worker bees.

But their bosses? Well unseen might be a fair description.

The ethics proposal gets to the heart of the problem. The House is slowly revving to life, a full month later than normal (which was already a languid pace) because former House Speaker Sal DiMasi waited unto the end of January to step down as a way of dealing with the ethical controversies swirling about him.

Even though you would think the new boss, Robert DeLeo, would have his new committee chairs firmly in mind after winning the speaker's gavel, it took him awhile to name names. And move offices.

Surprisingly, the pace seems to upset only the tiny contingent of Republicans. Here's the view of Common Cause executive director Pam Wilmot:
"I may be wrong, but I'm not sure we're at the point where the world is going to collapse if we take two more weeks to deal with some of these issues. I don't want to be an apologist for the system, which has many flaws. But we also need to be realistic and let it work. You can't get blood out of stone."
Which is what many taxpayers are saying about the proposed gas tax hike.

Or listen to North Adams Democrat Dan Bosley, perhaps the most visible victim of the DeMasi-DeLeo transition, stripped of his committee chairmanship:
"Is it slow? Yeah, but there are reasons for it. It's unfortunate because we ought to be talking about pension reform, transportation reform, and the budget."
I'm far from a legislature basher: I've spent some time as a staffer. But the reasons for the slowdown are just not acceptable for voters who have to show up every day, put it in a full day and clock out hoping they will be able to do it again the next day.

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Media meltdown

One of the more memorable -- and incomprehensible -- lines from the Vietnam War was uttered by a military officer: "we had to destroy the village to save it." Apparently newspaper owners and publishers have taken it to heart.

The news just keep getting worse, particularly at everyone's favorite local punching bag, the Boston Globe. Dan Kennedy confirms the Globe is shutting down City Weekly and disemboweling North West. Adam Reilly utters what no one dares speak -- what happens if fewer than 50 take buyouts, naming names of possible layoff victims.

And that's just Boston, Reading Romensesko is like reading a roll call of doom: Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver, Providence, San Antonio. And that was just yesterday. Even the vaunted and venerable Associated Press is vulnerable.

There's also some handwringing that journalists are once again being remarkably self-centered -- after all lots of people are losing their jobs. But there is something different at play here.

Newspapers play an important role in attempting to keep government and politicians honest. Losing the watchdogs is a frightening prospect. Bloggers like me cannot come close to fill the gap. Hey, I have a full-time job (thankfully) that pays the bills, this is just fun!

The economic model that has driven the media for most of its existence is clearly changing. Maybe the media moguls think they really need to destroy the village in order to save it.

But the collateral damage -- the lost of oversight and transparency -- is frightening to tally.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Instant analysis

I'm old enough to remember when critics (mainly Republicans) used to slam the television networks for the "instant analysis" of presidential speeches.

We now live in an age where everyone gets that chance -- in 140 characters or less. I'm not so sure that's an improvement.

I took an after-the-fact look at three of the people I follow, Dan Kennedy, anamariecox, and fakerahmemanuel (do not read with small children looking over your shoulder.)

Some interesting observations and a few good laughs -- certainly things I wouldn't hear on the networks. But nothing that could not wait to morning.

Then again. Bobby Jindal could wait until morning and based on the early reviews he shouldn't be so quick in dismissing unemployment benefits -- he may be needing them. (That could have been a neat Tweet).

Twitter remains an emerging concept. I see its utility in bringing breaking news to a broader audience more quickly (without the fact-checking of course). However, I'm not convinced 140 character analysis is the way to go.

But at least it's more interesting than hearing what someone had for breakfast.

That said, I'm there too. It could be a real Tweet (boo, hiss...)

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Crackup at the toll plaza

There was an ugly crackup on the Mass. Pike tolls yesterday -- the soon-to-be defunct Turnpike Authority board slammed head on into the Massachusetts Legislature. One major casualty -- Gov. Deval Patrick's transportation overhaul plan, whose condition (existence?) is still being determined.

The board voted to raise tolls in two stages, as expected. The Legislature, which is still awaiting a bill spelling out in exact detail what Patrick got around to articulating only last week, was not amused.
“I don’t know where they’re going to get the votes from,” said Sen. Mark C. Montigny (D-New Bedford) of Patrick’s plan. “I wouldn’t even consider a vote for the gas tax right now. I have so little faith that we’ll get the dramatic reforms we need.”
It didn't have have to happen.

In a twisted way the authority board finally did the right thing after years of inaction and ineptitude in its "management" of the Big Dig. Although it is slated to disappear under the plan Patrick keeps promising to file, it had a fiduciary responsibility to protect its bond holders and prevent a default.

They concocted the two-step toll hike -- $2 each at the tunnels on March 29 and July 1 -- to give Patrick and lawmakers time to act on a plan that would eliminate the need for the higher tolls and the board itself.

But the Patrick administration -- despite talking about transportation reform virtually from Day One -- has simply been unable to put anything before lawmakers.

And while it is a recognized fact that legislatures only act when confronted with a crisis, they don't like acting with a gun to their collective head.

Let's see now -- you can choose between an outrageous $4 bump in tolls for a small subset of people who use the Big Dig or a 19-cent a gallon hike in the gas tax. How would you prefer to be executed? Burned at the stake or beheaded?

If that wasn't enough, the Plan To Be Filed Later also includes pennies on the gas tax to bail the MBTA out of the problems it faces (based on the last time the Legislature "reformed" transportation.)

You know, the same MBTA that Auditor Joe DeNucci says wasted $15.4 million because of inadequate planning and oversight of the design of the CharlieCard automated fare collection system.

The same MBTA whose "maintenance" of its escalators and elevators is so shoddy that someone died riding not a bus or subway but an escalator.

They say the darkest hour is just before dawn. Things are looking awfully dark right now for Massachusetts commuters weary of low quality, high cost transportation options.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Lucky Seven

Well, scratch a casino gambling bill off the Legislature's agenda.

If Deval Patrick needs any additional convincing that resort casinos are not the way to balance the budget, the Globe's Matt Viser provides it in this dispatch from Las Vegas.
Sheldon Adelson, Las Vegas Sands Corp. chief executive, in a rare, hourlong interview last week inside his office at The Venetian, said Massachusetts can't expect to win the lucrative windfall that Patrick forecasted last year unless the terms are more favorable to developers.

"I will do everything I can to be in my own hometown, in my own state," said Adelson, a Dorchester native. "However, it's going to be more difficult.

"I don't think there's anybody left in the casino business that would pay $350 million for a license for 10 years," he added. "They won't do it."

Not even the slots are recession-proof. And we're talking about a business sector that hasn't exactly acquitted itself with flying colors in recent years.

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Uncertain confidence intervals

We're being told the stock market continues its plunge because investors have no confidence in government plans to bail out the baking industry.

But let's stop for a moment and think about who these investors are. Oh, that's right, they are the folks who were confident as AIG went down the rat hole. Or happy as the folks at Citigroup as they spent millions in bailout dollars on newspaper advertising and baseball stadium naming rights.

And now they don't have confidence that taxpayers will bailout them out -- yet again?

I lost confidence in those self-important types when I realized I was going to need to out my retirement off for about 10 years.

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He's lost a little off his fastball

Score this one "compassionate conservatism."
ELIZABETHTOWN, Ky. -- U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning predicted over the weekend that U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg would likely be dead from pancreatic cancer within nine months.

During a wide-ranging 30-minute speech on Saturday at the Hardin County Republican Party's Lincoln Day Dinner, Bunning said he supports conservative judges "and that's going to be in place very shortly because Ruth Bader Ginsburg … has cancer."

"Bad cancer. The kind that you don't get better from," he told a crowd of about 100 at the old State Theater.

The Kentucky Republican, who is more likely to be remembered for pitching a perfect game than for his legislative career, later apologized, the same day she returned to the bench.

One of the less well-remembered reasons that an Obama victory was important.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Milk carton politics

We're about to enter the last full week of February and meteorological spring is just around the corner (I"m not waiting for the real thing -- too far away!). Congress has passed a $787 billion stimulus bill and is moving on to other pressing issues after a short break.

The Massachusetts Legislature? Well, I hope they had a pleasant school vacation week.

Nearly two full months into a year which should be loaded with important activity, Beacon Hill remains virtually asleep. There have been snags in filing bills -- even though that process is now computerized. Proposals that are in the hopper haven't been making it to committee (second item).

Part of the problem, obviously, is the DiMasi Drama. By holding his resignation until late January -- and another year of pension credits -- former Speaker Sal DiMasi virtually insured the House would work on the same leisurely pace that characterized its schedule during his reign.

New Speaker Robert DeLeo took his time in making committee assignments (I mean really, he didn't have that already worked out?) and then the House went through its routine paces in adopting rules.

Phew. That's enough intrigue and internal politics to surely warrant a week off. Just like Congress.

To be fair, school vacation week schedules are slow all over. But the slow roll out of committee assignments and rules debates reflect business as usual -- and not the urgency that should be seen in these times.

What's that you say -- what can they debate when the budget is early in the process and the governor hasn't filed his transportation bill yet?

How about ethics reform?

It's time to pick up the pace. When Congress looks like a dynamo in comparison to the Great and General Court it's fair to wonder if we need to stick the Golden Dome on a milk carton and put out a call to discover if anyone has seen them.

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Sunday, February 22, 2009

Buy American -- Citi style

I think I just figured out how Citibank will repay American taxpayers for the federal bailout (and the front page and full-page ads they are buying in The New York Times.)

The bills are coming due from a brief respite in Aruba -- an island so American-friendly that U.S. Customs welcome you home there and merchants gladly accept dollars as readily as Aruban florins.

So imagine my surprise to see a foreign transaction fee tacked onto the bill -- for charges made in American dollars. At least I paid it off at one time, thereby avoiding their effort to jack up the interest rate by a full 16 percent if I had thought about time payments.

For the record, this was a first after multiple trips to the island. And so far, charges made through other credit card companies such as American Express don't come with fees attached.

Glad to help them keep the flow of costly advertising up. I can't wait to help when they join the chorus bellyaching about the loss of bonuses for the geniuses who flushed the economy down the toilet.

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To the pain


Are the young Republican governors-cum-2012 presidential hopefuls channeling The Princess Bride?

You may recall that when Wesley challenged Prince Humperdinck for the hand of Buttercup, he did the Prince one better in characterizing the duel. When Humperdinck dismissed the challenge with "I know, I know, to the death," Wesley countered with a detailed accounting of "to the pain."

Tell me Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal isn't thinking of the same thing when he cavalierly dismisses higher unemployment benefits for his jobless residents so that he can uphold his alleged ideological purity.

Unfortunately, all too many Louisiana residents already paid the price for GOP purity, nicely summarized by the Globe as "Grandstanding or Posturing."

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Guess he didn't read the Globe

Lots of words have been written and spoken about the relationship between The Boston Globe and The New York Times, including the likelihood the imperious parent has no clue about what's happening up north.

This Mark Leibovich piece of Ted Kennedy -- coming as the seventh and final segment of the Globe's endless series appears -- proves it better than any words.

And we can only fathom the reaction on Morrissey Boulevard on learning the Kennedy -- who declined to speak to them for the series -- did have a phone chat with Leibovich.

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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Hey Joe, get a Prius

The Globe tells us Joe Ciaramitaro of Gloucester is pissed off that he will have to pay 19-cents a gallon more in taxes on his wife's Lincoln Navigator (14 mpg city, 20 mpg highway).

Standing next to a vehicle that appears to be as tall as he is, the Gloucester resident lamented:
"Between feeding, housing, clothing, and schooling, all I need is another increase in my taxes," he said. "You just can't keep taxing people to death."
Hey Joe, get a Prius (45.5 mpg highway).

Republican stimulus bill opponents have taken to calling Democratic proposals "socialism" because of fears that government spending aimed to push the country out of recession is a left-wing plot.

But the belief that government should subsidize people is deeply ingrained in the GOP's now-discredited free lunch theory that we can have it all and no one has to pay for it.

Roads, bridges and oversize, gas-guzzling behemoths are apparently a right as inalienable as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The Globe graphic on the right is an excellent breakdown of how Patrick's gas tax proposal will be spent. As a Toyota-driving, MBTA-riding Massachusetts resident it works for me. I will continue to walk as much as I can and take my Corolla (35 mpg highway) where I cannot.

The gas tax is the ultimate in user fees -- something no less a free market conservative like (at least last time we looked) Mitt Romney believes in. Drive less -- or something more fuel efficient -- and pay less. Economics 101.

Nor do I have a problem with what the Herald breathlessly announces is Patrick's proposal to index the tax to inflation. That will avoid the problem of massive hikes every 20 years or so. And weren't we talking about driving less when OPEC and the oil companies had gas over $4 a gallon anyway.

Sadly though, I must agree with UMass professor Paul Watanabe that the political timing for Patrick is not great -- something that actually earns him brownie points for political straight talk.
"Look, this is not where Deval Patrick wanted to be in the third year of his term. Assuredly, there will be a considerable amount of distress raised by his proposal but . . . I think there are plenty of people who recognize that in some ways the sky is falling and something has to be done about it."
Thankfully he's not proposing a tax on political straight talk. We'd go broke in short order. Just watch the Legislature as it debates this transportation overhaul.

But governor, file the actual blankety-blank bill. Pronto.

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Friday, February 20, 2009

At last! (Maybe)

After a gestation period longer than an elephant, Deval Patrick is ready to announce his call for a 19-cent hike in the gasoline tax and a plan for overhauling the state's decrepit transportation system.

Maybe.

The Hamlet-like performance on how best to address the state's crumbling roads and bridges and overburdened and underperformed mass transit system is scheduled to end with an announcement today. The trial balloon of a 27 to 29-cent gas tax hike has been lowered.

The Globe reports the Patrick plan would reorganize roads, public transit and airports under the secretary of transportation. The turnpike authority would disappear, Massport would be weakened so that it exists to meet federal aviation rules. Patrick would also adopt numerous structural changes proposed by an influential state panel, including cuts in future MBTA fringe benefits that have been especially costly.

Swell. Decent-sounding plan. But here's the rub:
The plan, which Patrick is scheduled to formally unveil in a speech this afternoon, will be filed with the Legislature in a more detailed bill in the next few days, the officials said.
The next few days? This bill could have been written with quill pen on parchment with the amount of time it has taken to come into focus. Why yet one more delay?

Could it be to put pressure on lawmakers because the Turnpike Authority is scheduled to vote on tolls next week -- which has a plan for a two-stage hike starting with phase one as early as next month?

House Transportation Committee Chairman Joseph Wagner is not amused.
“I’ve tried to give the administration the benefit here, but submitting a bill at the eleventh hour on the eve of a toll vote is the wrong way to go. There really shouldn’t be an expectation on the part of the administration that we would turn substantial reform legislation around on a dime.”
True, why rouse legislators from their mid-winter torpor. It's school vacation week after all.

And the House was perfectly capable of creating its own package in the absence of a gubernatorial plan. The Senate did. I guess the House was too busy playing "Speaker, Speaker, Who'll be the Speaker" and "Musical Chairs" to get to work on its own plan.

Since nothing is yet written in either the governor's office or the House let me propose two new revenue sources:
  • a dithering tax, to be paid by public officials who can't get from concept to legislative proposal to final action and;
  • a finger-pointing tax on elected officials who try to pawn off the blame on others when they have had it within their own power to act
We might be able to repeal the income tax with the revenue that would generate.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

If a news section falls in the woods...

The Boston Business Journal is reporting the Globe is thinking about axing City Weekly as part of its continuing effort to win back readers by doing less for more. (Why the BBJ is reporting this and not the Globe is a separate question.

While I lament the continued evisceration of the Globe, I don't think it's such a bad idea. In fact I suggested it few months back.

Yes, the Globe does an abominable job covering the city neighborhoods, despite spokesman Dick Powers claim that “We now have a lot of city coverage in our Metro section." Not the shrinking Metro section I read.

But as a resident of one of the non-city neighborhoods the Globe covers just once a week, I can say the coverage is even worse than that I can get in the Tab.

Maybe the powers that be will quickly add Brookline, Cambridge and Somerville to their Gatehouse-free Your Town online section.

It would only be an improvement over what they offer now.

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How can we miss her when she won't go away?

She's baaaack.

Turn on the TV and there is Sarah Palin, with Bristol and her grandchild, sitting down with Greta van Sustern. (I thought she objected to media attention and questions about the children?)

Then she joins with with other GOP governors (who may have read my blog?) and suggests they won't take the federal stimulus money because of the strings attached. One overnight TV anchor suggested it may all be political since their legislatures can override them them. Ya think?

Then there's the not so welcome scrutiny. A new book. Tax issues over questionable perks (thinks she called Tom Daschle to commiserate?) A harsher spotlight at home than in the days when she shared the Saturday Night Live stage with Tina Fey.
Nearly every move that Palin makes or does not make, acknowledges Joe Balash, one of her closest aides, is analyzed through a new political prism, scrutinized for its effect on a possible 2012 presidential candidacy. "There's nothing we can do to stop it," he said. "People wonder why she's doing something or not doing something."
Well you can start by not putting your daughter and grandchild on Fox.

The decline in oil prices should put Palin in a position more akin to her 49 state counterparts in having to deal with unpleasant budget realities. Let's see how she does at that before we start thinking about the 2012 field.

Of course that's a suggestion that should apply to her as well. Go ahead, don't take the federal cash. There's more for the rest of us -- and a bigger challenge for you in governing.

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Dead Tree Society

It's been the source of silence on much of the web, so it's time to ask the obvious: is anyone reading the Globe series on Ted Kennedy?

When a segment on Chappaquidick generates 34 (unedited) comments you really have to wonder whether this is the largest large series dud in newspaper history.

Let me start by saying my respect and admiration for Kennedy is deep -- personal warts and all. I always point to the large clan of children he became surrogate father to after his brothers' murders -- and how well they have turned out for the most part -- as the ultimate symbol of the man.

But let's also be clear, Globe insistence aside, this is not a seven-part prelude to his birthday on Saturday. At best, let's call it a premature obituary. At worst, let's call it an extended advertisement for the Peter Canellos book hawked at the end of every story in print and online.

I have not read every word of every segment, although I've tried. I usually get bogged in in the second to last column on the second inside page.

So that's still a lot of words read -- and I am searching for even a nugget of news to justify such a massive expenditure of staff time and space.

Maybe I'm being premature in writing this -- but I doubt it. Kennedy, it has been noted, was not interviewed for the series.

I hope Kennedy defies the odds. He is a national treasure, certainly a Massachusetts one. But this series is not ready for the Pulitzers.

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Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Oasis in the GOP desert?

The one thing that has sustained the Massachusetts Republican Party during its steady decline into irrelevance is its ability to win the state's top office while losing just about everything else. And, just as spring is rumored to be around the corner, a political crocus is popping its head through the soil.

Harvard Pilgrim chief executive Charlie Baker is making tentative noises about mounting a 2010 challenge to Deval Patrick. The GOP faithful are flocking to him like desert travelers spying an oasis.

Make no mistake: Charlie Baker is the real deal. He served as secretary of health and human services and administration and finance under Bill Weld. In the private sector, he delivered Harvard Pilgrim from receivership.

Unlike the past four Republican governors he has the street cred when it comes to knowing how to run a bureaucracy and a business (and knowing where the bodies are buried). He knows how to blog. He also has a commitment to making it in Massachusetts.

What Baker does not have is the electoral experience, save for one term on the Swampscott Board of Selectman, a second job he gave up two years ago. Not disqualifying by any means -- what office did Deval Patrick hold before? But we don't know whether Baker can give -- or more importantly take -- a political punch.

Past whispers suggested Baker might not have the stomach for the rough and tumble in a state where the last Republican governor swooped in from Utah to ambush a weak incumbent in his own party, then headed right back out after establishing a stepping stone for a presidential run.

There is a far lesser buzz about Wrentham State Sen. Scott Brown, who has the electoral experience Baker lacks but is short on the accomplishments side.

Baker is showing all the requisite caution, giving Patrick an "incomplete" and coyly declaring that there is "not a heck of a lot" to find attractive about the Corner Office these days.

Actually that's not being coy. That's the truth.

Patrick is in for a hellacious year. How he emerges on the other end will determine if he even wants the job again, never mind whether voters will give him a second term.

Dealing with the budget nightmare, the painful cuts and likely "revenue enhancements" is a more than full-time job. Toss in casinos, the MBTA, housing and the homeless you have more potential third rails than most subway systems. If Patrick navigates these waters successfully, he will be invincible.

If not, and the administration's seeming inability to get plans out these door on time is not a good sign, he will likely be an easy target for the Last Republican Standing.

Stay tuned.

CORRECTION: An eagle-eyed reader reminds me to read dates as well as stories. Baker gave up his selectman's job in 2007, not this year.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Fantasy Land reporting

Hey Barack Obama: you've just passed a $789 billion stimulus bill that contains money for infrastructure, helps states meet the some of the crushing deficits they face and provides a tax cut in pay checks for millions of Americans. What are you going to do now?

Well, unlike the Super Bowl MVP, the president is not going to Disney Land. But there's a chance he may wonder whether he's in Fantasy Land anyway, as he gets kicked from the left and the right.

Welcome to that peculiar Washington disease called "Inside the Beltway Bias."

While governors across the country -- including many with an "R" after their names -- are quietly counting how to spend the federal cash infusion to avoid layoffs and put people back to work, the media wisemen and women are seeking out the naysavers who think Obama did too much or too little.

The Washington press corps sees just three Republican votes and declares the Obama plan a failure because it did not achieve bipartisan support. That is until they picked up the phone and called people like Florida Gov. Charlie Crist -- last seen on the national stage standing next to his presidential candidate, John McCain.
“It really is a matter of perspective,” Mr. Crist said in an interview. “As a governor, the pragmatism that you have to exercise because of the constitutional obligation to balance your budget is a very compelling pull” generally.
Then there's the other side of the aisle. Here Washington insiders talk to other Washington insiders and come up with a different view of the stimulus package.
Liberal Democrats recognize the package's scale and accomplishment, and they have defended it against Republican attacks. But they also wonder whether Obama could have used the opportunity of a large congressional majority and a moment of economic emergency to pass a bigger package, with a better chance of boosting the economy and with more of his priorities intact.
Until they stumble upon someone who entered the Beltway from beyond:

"We can't suddenly say, 'Change has come,' and just talk to one another and add more demands. We have to be out there explaining in the most elementary ways why something like universal health care is good for America," said Theda Skocpol, a Harvard University political scientist, addressing a conference of left-leaning groups in Washington last week.

She added: "It isn't going to happen in one week, and it isn't going to happen with one bill, with Olympia Snowe telling us what to do. It's going to be a long slog."

I was taught as a young reporter to get out and talk to real people. Has that message changed so drastically since my young days?

While a Harvard professor may not be the ideal example, it still proves the point that there are shades of gray to be found beyond the black and white of the people you cover on a daily basis.

I have argued long and hard that liberal media bias is a myth. Reporters have a bias against those in power and look to challenge them in the best sense of the old line that journalists are supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

But journalist also have a tendency to wear blinders and see only what is in their immediate field of vision. Political reporters in particular don't spend a lot of time outside their comfort zones. I know that first hand.

So I have a "stimulus" suggestion for the Washington press corps: Stop pontificating on the Sunday yak shows, get off your butts and get out there and see what life is like in the states that will receive the stimulus money.

Find out if the people who voted for the Republican House members agree with their decisions -- or like the fact they will get a tax break in their pay checks (assuming they still have jobs after the havoc wreaked by the Wall Street moguls who benefited from Bush-era tax cuts).

The media is facing its own hard times. Putting an end to Fantasy Land reporting would be a nice way to restore some credibility and maybe win back a few readers.

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Housing solution


Gov. Deval Patrick has a problem of too many people seeking too few spaces in homeless shelters.

Former Gov. Mitt Romney is looking to unload a 6,400 square feet pink colonial because "they have more space than they need."

Think we can work something out?

And does this mean Mitt won't be living in Massachusetts any more?

(Boston Globe photo)

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Coming soon: Morrissey Boulevard speed traps

An absolutely beautiful piece of gotcha investigative journalism graces the pages of the Globe today.

Students in Walter Robinson's investigative journalism at Northeastern have perfectly chronicled the "do as I say, not as I do" mentality of public officials (elected and otherwise) with a look at the way Boston Police ignore the traffic laws they are sworn to enforce.

So many moments of delicious irony it's hard to pick just one. But I'll go with this:

If a single phone call from [Supervisor of Parking Enforcement] Irene Landry can frighten four scofflaws into instant compliance, why not have her traffic enforcement officers, who are known for taking guff from no one, write tickets around Police Headquarters?

Not possible, said Thomas J. Tinlin, the city's Transportation Commissioner and Landry's boss. Under longstanding policy, he said, police officers are responsible for enforcing parking rules outside their own buildings. And, Tinlin asserted, the creation of that policy was unrelated to concerns that ticketing police officers would lead to friction between the two departments.

Give that class a round of As! And a word to Globe employees: make sure you know traffic and parking laws down to the letter.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Counting to 59

They screwed up the economy and stained the Constitution, but Republicans still excel in one particular area -- disenfranchising voters. The people of Minnesota must surely agree.

While a massive stimulus bill was negotiated, debated and negotiated again, Minnesotans needed to rely on only one of their allotted two senators because -- three months after they went to the polls -- the wrangling over who to seat goes on.

Incumbent Republican Norm Coleman thought he had it in November, by a razor-thin 725-vote margin. But backed by a mandatory state recount, Democrat Al Franken opted not to follow the "good loser" model of Al Gore and John Kerry, eventually "opening up" a 225-vote win.

Coleman also never considered the "good loser" model and has tied the results up in litigation, aided and abetted by a Republican Senate minority ready to do anything to prevent Franken's seating.

Tell us again how you guys are focused on returning to your fiscal conservative roots and and helping the country out of the mess created by W?

Three straight elections with major problems surrounding the count -- one of which many will still argue was stolen.

It makes you wonder why, in what is allegedly the most technologically advanced nation in the history of the world, we don't seem to have the ability to count votes fairly, accurately and in a timely manner.

Maybe next time we should try purple ink?

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Don't show 'em the money

Here's a suggestion for the congressional Republicans who continue to insist that the $787 billion stimulus bill is a wasteful package of pork that will bring down the nation: don't take money and leave more for the rest of us.

Take for example, Indiana's Mike Spence. Citing the "sharp divide" between the Democrats and the "American people" Spence declared:
"This is a massive liberal spending bill being passed under the guise of stimulus," said Pence, chairman of the House Republican Conference. "President Obama talks about the tired ideas of the past. The ideas people are tired of is reckless federal spending.
"I'm sure the "industry-driven cities" in your district will be happy to forgo the aid. And I'm sure there is no federal aid offered to the farmers in your district.

Then there is Minority Leader John Boehner, who earnestly declares:
It appears that congressional Democrats have made a bad bill worse by reducing tax relief for working families to pay for more wasteful government spending.
Yep, Boehner definitely stood up for "working families" during his congressional service, families with the name of Abramoff, Thain and others who represented the feeding frenzy of Republican politics that has brought us to this precipice.

The Republican Party ought to seriously consider changing its symbol to the ostrich -- it stuck its collective head in the sand while the financial services industry gambled with our tax dollars, enriching themselves while offering reckless and exotic financial deals that have collapsed under their own weight.

The party has also ignored history. Look back over the last 30 years. Supply side economics -- aptly named voodoo economics by George H.W. Bush -- rang up huge deficits during the Reagan and Bush I years.

It was only during the Clinton era -- when Republicans once again marched lockstep in opposition -- did the federal budget recover. George W. Bush quickly squandered that surplus and launched us onto a road where no one -- from bankers to peanut processors -- were held responsible and taxpayers were left holding the bill.

My guess is we will see history repeat, although the Democratic recovery this time around will be slower and less robust simply because the ditch Republicans dug is that much deeper.

The biggest mistake Barack Obama has made in the stimulus bill process is attempting to live up to his promise of bipartisanship. Just look at the contempt of GOP "leaders" toward the three "defectors" -- Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine and Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania.

It's clear party loyalty is a more important GOP goal that the health of the American people.

So, by all means stand on principle Reps. Spence and Boehner and the rest of your GOP colleagues. Show us your moral commitment by rejecting aid targeted for your district.

That's a stand that is sure to generate the angry phone calls you're expecting Mr. Spence.

And oh yeah, stop this "sharp divide" between the party that won the White House and large majorities in the House and Senate. Your collective heads were buried so deep that you missed the election results.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

Vexatious vetting

Why is it so hard to hire people for public jobs?

Deval Patrick and Barack Obama must be asking themselves that after two high profile problems: Patrick missing out on the fact his new stimulus czar had been fired from a previous job and Obama losing his second Commerce Secretary nominee in as many months.

Let's start with Jeffrey Simon, the $150,000 a year hire who was supposed to manage how we spend the stimulus infrastructure cash. I had a bad feeling about the position in the first place, based on symbolism alone.

But it got worse.
The real estate developer chosen by Governor Deval Patrick to distribute billions of dollars in federal stimulus money has been receiving a state pension ever since he was fired from his job at a state development agency in 1995, according to state records.
Just how extensively did Patrick's team check out this guy's background? Just how long did it take for the Globe to find this out?

A state pension patriot is just the worst possible symbol. Let's hope and assume the new search begins today. I hear there's a former House Economic Development and Emerging Technologies Committee Chairman who might be available. Good job at good wages.

The Judd Gregg flameout is harder to comprehend. Did this guy really not think through the implications of his decision to abandon his New Hampshire Senate seat and join forces with the Obama administration?
"...On issues such as the stimulus package and the Census there are irresolvable conflicts for me. Prior to accepting this post, we had discussed these and other potential differences, but unfortunately we did not adequately focus on these concerns."
What do you mean "we."? Senator, you had all the information possible -- based on a lifetime of public service -- that you and Obama had different views.

The Hamlet-like decision leaves almost as much egg on the president's face, adding Gregg to the list of Bill Richardson, Tom Daschle and other fouled up nominations damaged or ended by a variety of reasons.

You can almost understand if conspiracy theorists who suggest it's part of a concerted GOP effort to attack Obama's claims of bipartisanship.
"Despite our repeated attempts to work with President Obama and the Democrat Majority, Speaker Pelosi has refused to meet with us, or even include us in key negotiations, choosing instead to stick with a pork-filled bill that even members of her own party do not support," said a statement from Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip.
After all, playing politics is about the only thing the GOP congressional types seem to be skilled at.

There are millions of people out there we really need a job. Why can't these guys find qualified, committed candidates?

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Playing budget politics

The Patrick administration continues the political roll-out of its long overdue transportation plan -- and is looking to hold MBTA riders as hostages in the quest for higher gasoline taxes.

Just a couple of days after launching a trial balloon about a 29-cent gasoline tax hike -- to a virtual unanimous round of hostility -- Transportation Secretary James Aloisi was back yesterday with Step 2: Nightmare on the T.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority will have to increase public transit fares by as much as 25 percent, severely cut back services, or lay off employees unless the agency can figure out how to pay down the agency's crushing debt, the state's top transportation official warned yesterday.

"If we don't get help by June, we're likely to make the cuts," Aloisi said at a meeting yesterday with the MBTA board. "The damage will be significant."

How could we tell?

I have to believe there is room for a lot of trimming at the T -- starting with Smilin' Dan's salary and SUV.

And I'm certain I won't miss the "service ambassadors" who speed my ride by standing at the stop so they can register my Charlie Card and speed up Green Line boarding through all doors. How can you miss what you don't see?

There's no denying the T is in tough financial straits because of massive debt dumped on it by the Legislature. And the pension padding that afflicts much of state government is especially problematic at the T, a patronage haven for as long as I can remember.

But as Smilin' Dan loves to tells us monthly, ridership is way up.

So maybe threats of fare hikes and service cuts are designed to get people back into their cars and allow the state to collect more for the gas tax?

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Casino in the cards?

It's not the personnel shift that casino opponents wanted to see.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo removed another major impediment to bringing gambling to Massachusetts by changing chairmen of the House Economic Development Committee, ousting North Adams Democrats (and frequent Massachusetts Liberal commenter) Dan Bosley. (You're still more than welcome around here!)

Bosley attempted to stay neutral in the speaker battle.

He and DiMasi were the two biggest obstacles to casinos. New committee chair Brian Dempsey of Haverhill isn't showing his cards.

"I certainly have an open mind," Dempsey said of casinos. "I want to take a fresh look at some of the proposals that have been filed."

It's hardly surprising, given the deep fiscal hole the state is in, that casinos may return to the table -- even if there evidence of their pots of gold at the end of the rainbow is anything but rousing.

I guess the odds of having something to write about have improved though!

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Thursday, February 12, 2009

Mixed symbols

Gov. Deval Patrick deserves a round of applause for the important symbolic act of naming one person to oversee the distribution of an estimated $1-2 billion in federal economic stimulus cash.

But the symbolism of paying real estate developer Jeffrey Simon $150,000 to administer federal financial bailout cash is also pretty striking -- for sending the wrong message.

Granted the annual salary is less than what many UMass faculty and staff earn -- and more than the governor himself. But in tough fiscal times, with police and firefighters and teachers facing layoffs, another six-figure public salary is a bad PR move.

I'm not a public employee basher and I believe people should be paid a fair salary for their work -- even if they are being paid by public dollars. There are laws in place (although not tough enough yet) to deal with abuses.

I also applaud the idea of a state web site to track the cash and how it's spent -- using 21st Century technology to avoid good old-fashioned behind-the-scenes pork.

And I firmly believe we got what we paid for when Mitt Romney and Kerry Healey opted not to take a salary.

There's also nothing inherently exorbitant about Simon's salary given his duties and obligations. The private sector would pay far more.

But I just keep coming back to the fact it is symbolically out of sync. And I suspect a large chunk of the public will too.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Like kids in a candy store

They haven't even bought the candy yet, but that hasn't stopped the children from carving up the goodies.

In a scene being played out in 50 capitals, local, state and federal officials are tussling of who gets what and how much as they desperately hope to stave off major painful local cuts.

The desire for political credit combined with real needs to fix roads and bridges and prevent layoffs holds the potential to turn friend against friend -- and slow down what is supposed to be a quick infusion of capital into a comatose economy.

"The concept that one person, who is politically elected, is the sole person to decide where the money should go, just doesn't seem right," said US Representative Michael Capuano, a Democrat of Somerville who has been an early and frequent supporter of Patrick. "I would argue that no individual should be given that sole authority."

"When I said money should go to Longfellow Bridge, it's an earmark," he added. "But when Governor Patrick says it, it's a worthy idea."

Um, excuse me, Mr. Representative. You are just one elected person and you serve a population much smaller than the governor.

The view is even sharper one step farther down on the ladder.

Even the normally sleepy proceedings of the Pioneer Valley Metropolitan Planning Organization recently erupted in controversy. During a meeting last week in West Springfield, mayors in Western Massachusetts were shocked when state transportation officials said they wanted to use about $60 million in federal stimulus money for construction on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

The mayors feel the money should be used instead to fix municipal-owned roads and bridges in local communities. The meeting ended after several confrontational exchanges and was rescheduled for tomorrow.

Except:
"They've all submitted everything - including the Taj Mahal in every town - from wish lists they've had for years," Senate President Therese Murray said in an interview. "It's probably, what, $4 trillion?"
Patrick seems to have an interesting idea for breaking up the playground spat: a special administrator named by him, the attorney general, inspector general and auditor. It's the process used to name the IG in the first place.

Ever the realist, the one-time Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman says that's fine:
"If you gave us all the money and we all got to decide, we'd never agree where the money should go," Murray said.
Not to mention the fact that if you took the Patrick administration's timelines for producing casino and transportation plans, we'd be into the next recession before things got done.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

No more Mr. Nice Guy

With the White House press corps eager to show its mettle against a President they've been accused of coddling, it was inevitable the "worst week" analysis would pop up almost immediately in the instant analysis cocoon.

And it was equally obvious that this media savvy President would take the tried and true road -- out of Washington and over the heads of reporters to speak directly to real people.

The trip to Elkhart, Ind. and the sit downs with network anchors are obvious efforts to work around the media filter. Less well recognized is the use of the press conference itself, maybe because it hasn't been used effectively all that often, particularly over the last eight years.

I hopped in and out of the prime time presser (dogs rule!) but I was struck by the length of Obama's opening statement, his tone and the length of his answers. Often reporters are accused of filibustering rather than asking questions -- this time it was the President who held the stage.

And he left no question what the prime sound bites for the stories will be:
“I’m happy to get good ideas from across the political spectrum, from Democrats and Republicans,” he said at the Monday night news conference. “What I won’t do is return to the failed theories of the last eight years that got us into this fix in the first place, because those theories have been tested and they have failed. And that’s part of what the election in November was all about.”
Definitely red meat, especially for journalists who have been focusing on the GOP Taliban who seem to care more about debating points than mortgage rate points. And while harshly partisan, it's no less so than what's been thrown at him.

The media frequently focuses on how presidents live in cocoons without acknowledging that they do do. It's a fact not lost -- at least for now -- by the media man behind the Obama victory.
“One thing that we learned over two years is that there’s a whole different conversation in Washington than there is out here,” said David Axelrod, the president’s senior adviser. “If I had listened to the conversation in Washington during the campaign for president, I would have jumped off a building about a year and a half ago.”
By heading to the heartland, doing one-on-ones with familiar anchors and talking directly to the public through prime time news conferences (not to mention calling on bloggers!) the Obama team is showing it knows how to play the game. Inspiration is good, but success is better. And if that requires taking the gloves off, whether with Republicans or the media, so be it.

This will be fun to watch!

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Unleaded balloon

Well, at least Deval Patrick appears to have a transportation reform plan. But the trial balloon launched by the administration may have already snagged in the trees, victim of poor legislative relations.

The big news, of course, is the suggestion the Massachusetts gasoline tax could jump as much as 29 cents a gallon -- a plan that would also allow the administration to eliminate Mass. Pike tolls, pay off the MBTA debt and charge drivers by the miles.

That's actually a somewhat innovative idea, a user fee of sorts, that would encourage fuel efficiency and the use of public transportation.

But despite two years under his belt -- and his epic battles with former House Speaker Sal DiMasi -- Patrick seems to have forgotten Rule No. 1 on Beacon Hill: don't piss off your allies. Seems the governor and his staff failed to inform appropriate House and Senate leaders of the plan before it was leaked.

The reaction was blunt:
"I come from the school where the number one rule is no surprises," said Representative Joseph Wagner, a Democrat from Chicopee who has been the House's top transportation official. "These proposals are surprises. It's not my preferred way of doing business.

"Perhaps it's time for the administration to forward to the Legislature a proposal for reform. Then we won't see piecemeal things going on with tolls and taxes without any substance of proposed legislation."

And on the other side of the Golden Dome -- where Senate leaders have already filed their own plan after endlessly waiting for the Patrick plan -- the response was even sharper:
"We've been very clear: reform before revenue," [Senate President Therese] Murray said in an interview [with the Globe.] "There hasn't been any reform. We filed a 268-page reform, and we expect it to be looked at and enacted before we go to revenue."
And that was from his friends.

Paul O’Connell, executive director of the New England Service Station and Automotive Repair Association, said raising the gas tax by 27 cents would cause a “flight to New Hampshire” by motorists seeking lower prices.

“A lot of our members operate near borders, and this could put them out of business,” he warned. “My gut instinct is that this stinks.”

While I don't buy the idea that hordes of motorists will drive extra miles to New Hampshire to buy gas (unless they stop for booze and butts too), it's obvious the administration and its new pride and joy transportation secretary James Aloisi have failed to do the necessary groundwork before launching a trial balloon.

You'd think they would have had the chance to do that given the fact this plan has a longer gestation period than an elephant.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

Dodo politics

They have a blustery figurehead who spews hate when he speaks. They are a home for zealots who believe religion should drive society. Women are shunned and shunted into the background. No wonder the Republican Party is comparing itself to the Taliban.

Determined never to learn the lessons of defeat, the motley band of GOPers on Capitol Hill have now taken pride in their obstinacy and resistance. Certain there's is the only one true path to salvation, they pat themselves on the back for the "insurgent" tactics and proudly compare themselves to the intolerant religious zealots of Afghanistan -- a group they wrote off as the real international problem in their quixotic pursuit of Saddam Hussein.

And while the nation demands action to fix the deep problems caused on their watch, GOP "leaders" are talking tactics, not results.
The second-ranking House Republican, Rep. Eric Cantor (Va.), put it more bluntly. "What transpired . . . and will give us a shot in the arm going forward is that we are standing up on principle and just saying no," he said.
What principle is that? Balanced budgets? Fiscal responsibility? That reputation went out the door when Bill Clinton balanced budgets made unbalanced by Ronald Reagan and George Bush blew a hole into the American economy so deep that we are now floating on the edge of an abyss.

And of course Bush was aided and abetted by a Republican Congress that abandoned leadership and fiscal restraint by railroading foreign and domestic policy without so much as a whit of concern about what Democrats thought.

They continue to believe in the holy grail of deregulation and tax cuts for the rich -- the John Thains and Bernard Madoffs -- as the only true way to victory. Never mind the wreckage that is obvious to everyone that the policy was an abject failure.

And these same Republicans now see weakness in Barack Obama'a effort to fulfill a campaign pledge to reach across the divide and do what the American people want -- end the partisan bickering.

And just like their heroes, the Taliban, the GOP intends to soldier on, firm in their own belief of the righteousness of their cause. Led by Ayatollah Rush, they seek their heavenly reward of an intolerant society where one religion is right and true and the heathens and non-believers repent or die.

Guys, I really would get a new PR strategy. Or at least grow long beards.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Cable TV news ate my brain

I'm back, tanned, rested and ready. Well one out of three ain't bad.

After a week away I now know -- thanks to the good folks at CNN -- that Michael Phelps behaved like a normal college-aged male; that Barack Obama took his first rides on Marine One and Air Force One; and that Andy Card thinks Obama is demeaning the office because he doesn't wear a suit coat in The Oval Office (no word about Card's ex-boss disrespecting the Constitution).

Oh, and praise be, I know that Ashley Judd and Sarah Palin had a war of words on "Larry King Live" about something. And it was news to discover that Larry King is indeed alive!

Sort of makes you miss Boston television and newspapers.

Yep, after a steady diet of what cable TV affectionately calls news I am far more educated on Republican stimulus talking points (no context mind you, just straight "they report, I decide" coverage of a press conference). I am also painfully aware that a California woman looking for fulfillment decided to add eight children to an already healthy brood of six.

I learned this while watching newscasts that featured discussion of "newly released" information that was actually released the day before. And I also learned that an Arkansas doctor injured in a car explosion was not the victim of foul play -- before I learned that he was.

This was just CNN too. No Fox News Channel propaganda for me. And you wonder why people don't respect the media?

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