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Massachusetts Liberal

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

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Civics lesson

My favorite elementary school class was civics. Reading political coverage today makes it clear it is no longer being taught.

The Globe's lengthy look at Deval Patrick's record -- not to mention Charlie Baker's "positive" television commercials -- seem to ignore the first lesson of civics, that of three co-equal branches of government. As I learned in civics, the executive proposes and the legislature disposes.

By the way, the same cluelessness about how government works, or doesn't, applies to those on the left who castigate Barack Obama for failing to bring sweeping change overnight.

Part of the problem is we are electing more than a chief executive officer. We are looking for a leader, someone whose vision moves us. Patrick certainly did that in 2006 and Obama followed suit two years later.

But chief executives have boards of directors to whom they must answer. In the case of elected executives, it's even more complicated because they have to get things approved by independently elected "directors," each with their own rules, power bases and sources of funding.

Obama's problem is a walk in the park compared to Patrick. He must deal with a Congress where one branch's rule are so skewed that it takes a three-fifths majority to get a "gesundheit." The minority is openly dedicated to his defeat. All it takes to improve Obama's poll numbers would be a willingness to drop the pretext of bipartisanship and lay out the facts.

Patrick faces a board run amok. The Great and General Court, dominated by one party, has held a firm grip over the commonwealth's business for decades. So strong is its power that we've seen Lord Acton's aphorism about "power corrupts" brought to life in the indictment of three successive House speakers.

It's worth recalling much of the power was accumulated through 16 years of power-sharing, where three of the four Republicans physically or mentally walked away before the end of their terms, leaving an even bigger vacuum for legislative leaders to fill.

It's this sort of context that the media need to fill in assessing the promises and realities of political leaders. And it has been just the sort of context that has been lacking in the 24-7 cable television cycle of polls and gaffes.

Tea Party critics like Sarah Palin like to lambaste the "lamestream media" who don't swallow their fantasies whole. But there's certainly a heavy dose of "lame" in the media's abdication of the basic journalism principle of putting actions in context.

Investigative journalism is a dying art. With resources drying up, television now favors consumer scams and hidden cameras. Local print has the Globe Spotlight Team, which has done some good work around the edges of government, particularly the probation department.

It would be fascinating to see Spotlight tackle the Massachusetts Legislature -- the people, the money and the intersections of both. There's probably a Pulitzer Prize there -- and a chance for the public to understand that a lot goes between campaign promise and reality.

And it would provide a benchmark against which to gauge Baker's promises if he should win in November.

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