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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, June 30, 2010

Working class hero -- not

They'll be drinking champagne toasts and having caviar dreams of Scott Brown this long holiday weekend in the Hamptons. That truck-drivin' man from Massachusetts saved them $19 billion.

Meanwhile, over at Hopkinton State Park and others like it around the state, the folks losing their unemployment because Brown refuses to support an extension of long-term unemployment benefits -- because there's no money! -- will be wondering what happened to the champion of the little guy they elected in January.

Brown apparently single-handedly forced House and Senate finance chiefs Barney Frank and Chris Dodd to retreat to a conference room to strip the bank tax from a compromise financial reform bill designed to put an end to some of the abusive practices that brought us the Great Recession.

Apparently fat bonuses for "beleaguered" bankers and hedge fund operators won't be one of them.

“I’ve said right from the beginning that I can’t support a bill that’s going to add a $19 billion bank tax,’’ Brown told reporters yesterday. “You think the banks are going to pay it? No. The individual consumers are going to pay this in the middle of a two-year recession, through higher ATM fees, credit card, bank fees.’’

Problem with that rationalization is the fees would have been levied on banks with assets of more than $50 billion and hedge funds of more than $10 billion. Their fees would vary on a sliding scale, calculated so that institutions taking the greatest risks in the market would pay the highest taxes.

Don't know many folks with a hedge fund ATM, do you? And the way to avoid higher fees is to be more careful with OUR money. According to Frank:
“It will amount each year to less than their bonus pool."
Meanwhile, Brown will head off on yet another congressional recess having successfully blocked a bill that would extend long-term jobless benefits and helps Massachusetts and 29 other states pay some bills designed to stimulate the economy.

I don't think this is what people expected when they elected the (for now) most popular politician in Massachusetts.

Brown is among the conservative camp now holding sway around the world that the time to deal with deficits is now -- just as America is moving out of its funk even while Europe stutters. They held sway at the recent G-20, something Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman says heralds the onset of the Third Depression.
And this third depression will be primarily a failure of policy. Around the world — most recently at last weekend’s deeply discouraging G-20 meeting — governments are obsessing about inflation when the real threat is deflation, preaching the need for belt-tightening when the real problem is inadequate spending.
Failed policies like doing the bidding of the bankers over their depositors.

What's in your wallet, Senator Brown?

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Know thine neighbor

They were a nice married couple living in Cambridge. He's a Harvard grad, working as a consultant. She "was a friendly neighbor. She was gorgeous. She was nice.” They were immigrants -- from Canada.

They blended right in American society in Cambridge as did their friends and associates in Yonkers NY and Montclair NJ. Not a lot of questions raised about a white-skinned couple with middle class ways, college degrees and a command of the language. OK, so they were immigrants, but they must be here legally, right?

Well if you consider Russian spies legal residents, yes.

While the story of "Donald Howard Heathfield" and "Tracey Lee Ann Foley" reads a lot like a James Bond novel with invisible ink and passing papers in pre-assigned drops, the really chilling thought is they managed to pull it off in part through basic American bias.

They seemed like "us." No chance they were people who sneaked across the Arizona border. Or had a dark complexion or a funny-sounding name like Faisal Shahzad.

The tale of the 11 Russian spies arrested yesterday is also a tale of the dangers of labeling people by appearance or profession.
“I’m absolutely floored," said Paul Hesselschwerdt, president of Global Partners Inc., a Cambridge-based consulting firm where Don Heathfield has worked since 2000 as a sales consultant. “He’s a good person. He’s lived in the United States for a long time. We’re just completely shocked.’’
It all depends on the meaning of the word "good."

In the words of John E. Pike, director Globalsecurity.org, a military information website, we still have things to fear about Russia, despite a warming of relations from the days of "duck and cover."
“They’re the only other country on the planet that can wipe out civilization,’’ Pike said. “They are one of the few countries on the planet that could pose a military challenge to us."
Another good reminder that we can't simply tell a book by its cover.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

You can fool some of the people...

The clearest message from today's Globe poll on the popularity of Massachusetts politicians is that this blog doesn't get read widely enough.

Actually it's no surprise that Scott Brown continues to ride the wave of popularity that swept him into office and made him a national star. It takes a lot to break through the clutter of news and pseudonews these days and no major media outlet has really zeroed in on Brown's contradictions.

And the poll, conducted June 17-23, doesn't take into account Brown's votes against continued employment insurance and his threat to scuttle financial reform over a tax on the bankers who helped to create the wave of anger that put him into office.

It's also quite true that the Democratic bench is virtually empty, prompting the early failed boomlet for Rachel Maddow. It's really hard to conceive of any Democratic member of the House of giving up what the same poll suggests is still likely a safe seat to challenge Brown. And I really can't see any Kennedy successfully riding to the party's rescue.

But with Brown voting on the reservation with his GOP colleagues 84 percent of the time, there will be additional opportunities for votes that contrast rhetoric with reality. And I'm not planning to go anywhere.

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Ta ta Timmie

The latest Globe poll is less about the Charlie Baker "surge" and more about the Cahill Collapse.

Treasurer Tim may have expended all nine of his lives, dropping into single-digit Jill Stein territory as the Republican Governors Association attack ad campaign appears to have borne significant fruit.

Meanwhile Deval Patrick continues to hold a lead over Baker -- a 7-point margin consistent with a Rasmussen Poll earlier this week, ironically one which showed a far healthier Cahill. But with perception a key factor, the Globe's bad news is likely to dominate discussion far more than the wide spread in results, particularly since neither survey amounts to good news for the man running second a few months ago.

The Baker camp is sure to draw good news from their man's whittling of what had been a 14-point lead, even while 45 percent of likely voters still don't know who he is. That drop from more than 60 percent is no doubt a reflection of Baker's introductory TV ad buy.

But it's still somewhat intriguing that with just five months to go, an incumbent with high unfavorables can still hold any lead, particularly with the seeming demise of the third man in the race that many thought necessary for his survival.

The results also suggest a strategy for Patrick as he gears up for his own ad buys -- which I suspect he will hold off until September. Only 28 percent of respondents think he's brought change to Beacon Hill, half that who disagree. Ads focusing on pension and ethics reform as well as the transportation overhaul and standing up to police detail abuse could make a difference.

More important ground though lies in the economy. Signs that Massachusetts is doing better than the rest of the nation in digging out -- should they continue -- could blunt Baker's attacks. It's a basic fact that incumbent success rises or falls with the economy and Patrick could be a beneficiary.

As for Cahill? I don't see him quitting, at least not yet. He still holds a substantial war chest and could use his tailored for Tea Party issues to try and breath life back into his effort. But in the meantime, he is on life support and the former health insurance executive will no doubt be thinking about how the pull the plug on the thorn in his side.

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Let them eat cake

The Man of the People has a bit of a tin ear.

Scott Brown suggests parents "think outside the box" to keep their children active and out of trouble this summer -- a jobless one because Brown and his Republican colleagues think unemployment is a choice.

Sorry Scottie, but not everyone can get their kids onto American Idol or gigs on the CBS Early Show.

Maybe some of those hedge funds you're protecting have some openings?

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Money in the bank

Scott Brown has defended his indefensible decision to cut benefits for the long-term unemployed by citing his opposition to continued deficit spending. But when presented with an option to raise $19 billion from a sector largely responsible the Great Recession, Brown once again sided with the fat cats.

Despite winning concessions for his pals at Mass Mutual, Brown is now waffling on support for compromise financial reform legislation because it levels $19 billion in taxes and fees on banks and hedge funds.

With the same sincerity he has displayed in his support for the jobless, Brown insists he's against the tax because it will simply be passed on to consumers.
“I’ve said repeatedly that I cannot support any bill that raises taxes.’’
But let's listen to House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, who helped negotiate the compromise.

Fees would be levied on banks with assets of more than $50 billion and hedge funds of more than $10 billion. Their fees would vary on a sliding scale, calculated so that institutions taking the greatest risks in the market would pay the highest taxes.

Or, in Frank-speak:
“It will amount each year to less than their bonus pool.’’
The proposal includes a new regulatory mechanism for the industry that gave us sub-prime mortgages, derivatives and Bernie Madoff. In the words of Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law professor who has acted as a watchdog:
“They created a strong, independent consumer agency that will have the tools to rein in industry tricks and traps and to cut out the fine print. For the first time, there will be a financial regulator in Washington watching out for families instead of banks.’’
Now of course Brown has offered a classic waffle -- I'm against the tax but I haven't read the full bill. But by taking a stance against a tax on the riskiest of risky banks and hedge funds, literally against the survival of the long-term unemployed, Brown has issued a very loud statement of where his loyalties and priorities lie.

Regret that vote yet Massachusetts?

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Profiles in cowardice

The contrast could hardly be more striking: public employees have far more clout with legislators than legal immigrants.

The Massachusetts Legislature has once again whiffed in efforts to rein in what have become increasingly indefensible benefit costs that are saddling cities and towns. And the cop-out is hilarious. In the words of House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Murphy of Burlington:
“It’s very much a live issue, because it is so important ... Everybody on both sides of the issue acknowledges that the costs are an issue we have to address. The trick is finding the middle ground."
There's a certain "we had to destroy the village to save it" quality to the excuse. It's pretty clear is that middle ground includes salving the feeling of municipal unions who have balked at lawmakers taking away collectively bargained rights.

So while that may be a legitimate -- but hardly unresolvable issue -- lawmakers took the path of no resistance in saving some health care costs. They took away coverage from legal immigrants.

Let's repeat that for a second: these are not undocumented men and women who have been the focal point of right wing wrath. They live and work in Massachusetts with all the appropriate documentation and pay taxes. But unlike municipal employees, they don't vote.

Deval Patrick fought and won when the Legislature cut this program last year -- but appears to be noncommittal to another fight at this moment.

But that's apparently better than Charlie Baker and Tim Cahill, who prefer to focus on the fact that Patrick and lawmakers chose to fund the program and others with federal stimulus money that's been yanked away with the same predictably as Lucy's football holds.

And that's a profile in political expediency, just like taking it out of people who don't vote. Leaders offer solutions to problems. Let's hear 'em Charley and Tim. And Bobby and Terry.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

I feel your pain?

The juxtaposition of a compromise $27.6 billion state budget loaded with service cuts and a likely ballot question that would roll back the sales tax to 3 percent seems like a great time to be crying about the disconnect between voters and government programs.

But I'm just not sure that's really the case.

There's no question the fiscal 2011 will continue the recent round of cuts that translate into the layoff of teachers, police and firefighters. It will also mean cuts in health care and higher education.

Tacking on the potential loss $958 million in sales tax revenues for the fiscal year that starts next week and it's likely some will be fearing "blood in the streets."

Basic political analysis should suggest and angry electorate will pass the sales tax rollback with a sweeping majority. Yet, recent history doesn't convince me that's true: this is the third tax rollback effort in eight years and so far the anti-tax forces are 0-2.

Then (2002 and 2008) as now, the state was going through fiscal tough times and in one of those cases, even had a Republican governor (albeit one who had effectively abandoned Massachusetts for national politics). Two years ago we had just started hurtling down the slide, panicked and unsure where things were headed.

And the latest proposal from Carla Howell and her small government crusade is ambitious in its overreach. Instead of settling for a rollback to 5 percent -- something even Deval Patrick supports at the right moment -- Howell's true believers sought to further crippling government by lopping 3.25 percent off the levy, taking it back to a level unseen in these parts for decades.

It's worth noting that even Charlie Baker and Tim Cahill -- who make tax cuts integral to their message -- simply say they would heed the will of the voters if the question passes.

So I'm not sure conditions are ripe for the rollback. But what opponents need to do is to make very, very clear what has happened to state and local services since the economy's bottom has fallen out.

While I pay rather close attention, I simply can't say how many people have been laid off; how many fire houses closed and how badly classrooms have become overcrowded.

And anti-rollback advocates can't simply stop with numbers. There needs to be faces of the legal immigrants who are struggling to pay for their health care; mothers forced to work harder to pay for day care; students who fail to reach their potential because the teacher can't devote enough time to each of them.

Yes, there is waste, fraud and abuse in government at all levels. Steps have been taken to root it out. But those who use that as their rallying cry should be forced to step up and put a dollar mount on it and show us how eliminating a basic human nature is going to save the mythic billions they suggest is out there.

The fall campaign was already interesting with the gubernatorial race. It just got a lot more interesting.

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Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Scott Brown's cynical game

Scott Brown was elected to the United States Senate on the strength of a backlash from people tired of the cynical politics that passes for routine down there. He claimed he was going to be the champion of the little guy, the average voter.

I guess being unemployed doesn't qualify you for average.

Yep, our junior senator, who has fought hard for the jobs of bankers and financiers at Mass Mutual and Fidelity, has joined his Republican colleagues in a filibuster that is using the long-term unemployed as pawns in a cynical campaign against a deficit the GOP created through credit card wars and tax cuts for the rich.

Talk is obviously cheap:

“We need to stop the deficit spending and start offsetting the cost of worthy programs by cutting wasteful spending in other places,’’ Brown said in a statement. “This requires elected leaders to make hard choices, but our country’s economic stability requires that we get our fiscal house in order.’’

So let's see: allowing financial services companies to run hedge funds: good. Helping people stay on their feet while searching for a job to replace the one lost by financial service company and hedge fund greed: bad.

Here's a suggestion Senator Brown: make some hard choices in your own life. Give up your own salary, your own health care benefits and even your fabled truck. Try to live on good stamps and make a COBRA payment, praying you won't get sick.

Then you will be free to talk about looking after the average voter. Until then you're just one more cynical Republican politician whose words don't match his deeds., protecting his contributors while trying to balance the budget on the backs of the little guy who's been victimized by those contributors.

Put your own money where your mouth is Senator.

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Broken promises

Watching the way things work in Washington these days reminds me a little of Lucy and Charley Brown with congressional Republicans playing the role of the snotty little girl who breaks her promise.

With a little more than a week until the fiscal new year, The Statehouse News Service offers two stories today reflecting on how beholden Massachusetts is to the politics of gridlock: not only are we waiting for lawmakers to end a GOP-led revolt over promised federal Medicaid dollars, we are also waiting for the feds to cough up $160 million in cash they admit they already owe us.

GOP "leaders," including our very own Scott Brown, have tied 30 state capitals up in knots by opposing legislation that would deliver promised stimulus dollars. The display is also threatening continued unemployment benefits for those who have lost their jobs in the Great Recession triggered by similar efforts at GOP "leadership."

There's little dispute the nation faces a serious deficit problem -- the Bush's administration's success in cutting taxes on the rich and fighting two wars on credit cards have indeed created a deep hole after Clinton surplus.

But undoing the benefits of the stimulus bill -- and on the backs of the real victims like the unemployed -- makes about as much sense as apologizing to BP for demanding they pay for the mess they caused.

And whatever rationales partisans can come up for to justify causing chaos in three-fifths of the state capitals doesn't come close to explaining the excuse for not returning a $160 million overpayment in Social Security funds shelled out by Massachusetts residents.

It's important to remember who has dirtier hands in creating the mess we're in and who is behaving irresponsibly in efforts to try and dig out. It would be nice if the GOP would put the public interest ahead of their party interests, even once.

Aaugh!

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Monday, June 21, 2010

It's not easy being green

Charlie Baker likes to say he's not the smartest guy in the room -- and these days when his campaign braintrust makes head-scratching decisions, you have to agree -- or wonder whether he is in the room at all.

Baker's alter ego Chucky certainly was at the table when the campaign decided to skip an environmental forum. "Previous commitments" certainly doesn't cut it as an excuse when they offer to schedule it at a time convenient to y0u.

The problem is Baker is taking some stands you assume he is not comfortable with. And by that I don't mean opposition to Cape Wind based on cost -- and the concerns it generates within a Cape Cod community that holds many Republican voters.

No, Baker's problem is that of some-time climate change skeptic. The wishy-washy position was somewhat easier to understand (if not agree with) when he was facing a GOP primary, but hard to understand now, Hence the dance.

Baker's appeal to many in his bureaucratic days had been his non-doctrinaire approach, a willingness to take results over rhetoric. It was that pragmatism that made him an appealing alternative to progressives who had doubts and issues with Deval Patrick. And those voters are in far greater abundance in Massachusetts than climate skeptics.

Plus, taking the head-in-the-sand route is part and parcel of Tim Cahill's Tea Party strategy. While Cahill is the anchor on Baker's potential rise in the polls, differentiation and not agreement would seem to be a way to open more daylight between the two of them.

Cape Wind opposition also becomes more problematic in light of the BP Gulf disaster. While the windmills may be unsightly, they are far less a blight than tar balls washing up on beaches. Higher costs are a true concern and should be discussed openly -- by all candidates.

Charlie's dilemma here is clearly being caused by Chucky. But avoiding the issue doesn't make it go away.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Party of No S**t

The Party of No has once again snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Amid near universal pundit disdain for the job Barack Obama has done in portraying the right attitude toward BP and Gulf Coast disaster, up steps Texas Republican Joe Barton defend CEO Tony Hayward and the BP "brain trust" and wag a finger at the White House and its $20 billion "shakedown" against the world's worst polluter and the Gulf Coast citizens victims.

There is no doubt the condemnation truly has been universal. Even House Republican John Boehner though the comment beyond the pale and Barton eventually backed down.

Rest assured the defense of the indefensible will make its way into every political ad in the upcoming battle for Congress. The knee-jerk blast at anything Obama proposed -- combined with the utter tone deafness to the needs of residents in the heart of the GOP base -- may rest as the single dumbest political statement every uttered in Washington.

And as we all know, that's saying a lot.

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Hip check

Let's start with a few basics: political debates in June are a snooze, even if the Globe opts to put the story on Page One.

They are an even bigger snooze when they are three-way affairs, held on the radio at 8 a.m. And let's throw in the fact the moderator is not a journalist, but a former house speaker, turned convicted felon turned talk show host.

So there's very little to pick through from Tom Finneran's time with Deval Patrick, Charlie Baker and Tim Cahill. Mimicking the current campaign dynamic, it sounded as if everyone dumped on Charlie.

In fact, there's only exchange that leaves me looking for an answer: where did Finneran have his own hip replaced? The Herald's Jessica Heslam makes note of an exchange, without offering the answer:

Finneran walked away with one of the better soundsbites (sic) when he brought up the governor’s recent hip replacement surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital while pressing him on health care.

Finneran pointed out that Milton Hospital and Carney Hospital are close to the governor’s Milton home and offer orthopedic surgery at “considerable less price.”

“And you chose the Cadillac of Cadillacs,” Finneran said. “Is it one rule for you and a different rule for all the rest of us?”

Finneran’s Cadillac comment invoked Patrick’s rough start in the Corner Office and his ill-advised decision to cruise around in a pricey Cadillac.

We know Mistah Speakah had similar work done and that he is a resident of Mattapan, also close to Milton and Carney hospitals. But as the moderator, he felt he was under no obligation to disclose that fact or where his own surgery was performed. He didn't even have to tell whether either of those institutions even perform joint replacements.

Major league cheap shot in my book -- something debate moderators are not supposed to engage in.

It would seem a golden rule going forward would be that debate hosts hold the candidates -- and themselves -- to high standards. The public does have a right to know the biases at work.

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Mr. Brown's Wild Ride

Scott Brown can be forgiven if he needs to check into the emergency room for treatment of whiplash. He's in the middle of a very interesting pair of days where he's going to be caught between the devil and the deep oily sea.

Our junior senator will be visiting the Oval Office today to tell Barack Obama the focus should be on jobs and not on weaning us off of oil that is fouling our shores and costing thousands their livelihoods. That national fame clock keeps ticking and Brown is making the most of it.

How do we know it's ticking? Because some of Brown's erstwhile friends have turned on him faster than Dan Shaughnessy on the Celtics, picketing his Boston office because he had the audacity to talk with the Devil, er, Barney Frank.

What, oh what are they going to think about his chat with The One?

One certainly sees the slick political advice Brown has received. Using the triangulation method made famous by Bill Clinton, he's trying to walk the thin line between keeping his base on board while trying to ensure re-election in 2012.

It's that kind of strategy that has him self-righteously talking about creating new jobs by reducing business burdens while voting against those without jobs -- and threatening hundreds more losses among public employees -- by posturing against the bill now pending in the Senate.

It appears the strategy may be wearing thin. In addition to affirming the opposition of those already against him, Brown's efforts to appear statesman's like and work across the aisle have angered the base. If only they realized that he met with the Devil Frank in an effort to help the banks and insurance companies.

Christen Varley, president of the Greater Boston Tea Party, who organized the rally, said she was even upset that Brown worked with Frank on the bill.

“Barney Frank is a real lightening rod ... he’s the antithesis of what we’re about (as a movement),” Varley said yesterday. “We understand (Brown) may not be with us on every vote - we just think this is one of the big ones.”

Brown may soon be facing the ultimate truth offered by another President from Illinois, this one a Republican, who declared:
You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.
Tick tock Scott.

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Stalked

There's something vaguely creepy reading the various accounts of what's in the first batch of Ted Kennedy's files released by the FBI. The overwhelming sensation is of a man being stalked by those out to get him -- and those assigned to prevent that from happening.

There's no real surprise that there were scores of threats against the life of the third Kennedy brother, the only one to die by some means other than violence. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit is that Sirhan Sirhan, who assassinated Robert Kennedy, allegedly offered $1 million to a fellow prison inmate to kill Ted.

That alone could explain why Sirhan remains in prison today -- and why conspiracy theorists will have a field day trying to figure out where he could have come up with the cash.

Nor is it any surprise that J. Edgar Hoover, who kept a tight rein on the details of his own personal life, was so fascinated by Kennedy's. In a prurient way. Or that Hoover was as two-faced in his relationship with Kennedy as he was with the American people.

The files also don't provide a kind picture of Washington's other paranoid power broker -- Richard Nixon. It's hardly surprising that Nixon dispatched political consigliere John Dean to dig up dirt on Chappaquiddick, even if no federal crimes were involved.

The image that emerges from files culled by Kennedy family members is of a man who remained focused on his mission even with all the threats and turmoil around him. Many of Kennedy's greatest lapses were personal and self-inflicted, yet he never allowed those failings or the seemingly endless threats to safety and reputation to divert him from his goals.

And his legacy of accomplishment far outweighs his personal shortcomings.

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Monday, June 14, 2010

Frankly speaking

This is a bad year to make political predictions, with voter anger at a fever pitch. But I will go out on a limb and declare Barney Frank will be heading back down to Washington next year.

The Globe takes a sense of the district look at the Frank's 4th -- one that appears to be heavily weighted to the more conservative southern end and focusing on voters who listen to the right wing radio rants that Freddie Mae and Freddie Mac are the root of all evil.

We can also take the story at its word there are "ultraliberals" who are angry with the bank bailouts -- just about any sentient human being is.

But I found the story a simplistic person-in-the-street thumbsucker that failed to really take a detailed look at anything. It was more an attempt to check off another story about another congressional district race where the results are pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Barney Frank is the new Ted Kennedy: there is a solid percentage of voters who hate him and will never change. Even more-solid majorities feel otherwise and will keep returning him to office for as long as he runs.

Next up -- the 5th District?

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Talking trash

Massachusetts does a terrible job enforcing traffic laws directed at drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. Does anyone really expect littering law enforcement would be better?

It's very clearly a two-way street that could be improved a little on all counts of law enforcement stopped looking the other way. But I don't plan to hold my breath. There's something in the culture DNA of all of us.

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Sunday, June 13, 2010

Elephant's memory

Conservatives like to chide the Massachusetts gubernatorial nominee as a RINO -- a Republican in Name Only -- because his positions are not as doctrinaire as they would like.

But I'd like to offer a different take: the party's symbol, the elephant, is supposed to have a steel trap memory. And the nominee certainly doesn't have one -- at least when it comes to his role in creating the financing for the Big Dig.

The Globe dug through documents to produce a story that clearly shows Baker was offering a revisionist history when he insisted he did not play a major role in the machinations that helped finance the project. Faced with the facts, Baker comes clean, sort of:

“There were a lot of other people involved in it, all the way through,’’ he said. “And I was looking to build consensus with all those other people who ultimately had to sign off on whatever we were doing, including the Legislature and the governor and the Turnpike Authority and Massport and all these other folks.’’

Ironically, the answer highlights what is truly one of Baker's solid traits -- consensus builder. But the story also reflects the fact that there were things he could have done to make the mess a tad more palatable had he been willing to play hardball politics.

Baker's bosses -- Bill Weld and Paul Cellucci -- built their political personae as tax-cutters. And the immediate political benefit of lower taxes and tolls at election time clearly drove the debate, according to the documents the Globe excavated.
In 1996, Weld knocked down three turnpike tollbooths during his unsuccessful Senate campaign against John F. Kerry, eliminating a potential source of Big Dig revenue. Weld also oversaw the elimination of some motor vehicle registration fees, another potential source of direct funding.
It was high political drama although in the end it did Weld no good in trying to unseat Kerry. And Big Red quickly lost interest and abdicated to his No.2, who also had other things on his mind:

At the time, Baker could have relied on the money overflowing from state coffers. In June of 1998, Baker was presiding over a $1 billion budget surplus, with state income tax collections rising.

But with acting governor Paul Cellucci campaigning on a pledge to cut more than $1 billion from the state’s revenue stream by slashing the state income tax rate, there was little enthusiasm in the administration for diverting surplus funds to the Big Dig.

To be fair, Baker was a bureaucrat, highly regarded to be sure, not someone with whom the buck stopped. And so it was that the commonwealth squandered billions of dollars that could have mitigated the overruns produced by the out-of-control transportation secretary James Kerasiotis.

But instead of standing up for principle and walking away, Baker soldiered on -- and spent a good part of his current campaign for the Corner Office denying any role in the debacle.

Elephant's memory indeed.

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Live on Someone Else's Dime State

It seems our friends north of the border continue to suffer from an identity crisis.

Heck, first nature took the Old Man in the Mountain. Then human beings took another indelible image of the Live on Someone Else's Dime or Die State -- the Hampton Toll Booths (not the money mind you, just the endless lines you encounter transiting to and from Maine).

The identity crisis is such that our flinty friends have hired an Orlando, Florida firm to rebrand the Granite State. I'll refrain from Mickey Mouse wisecracks. OK, maybe just one.

But as a public service, I offer a reminder of some of the images and ideas from my own, free focus group. They can hold their own at the roadside liquor stores.

And here's a helpful suggestion: use Myth Romney as the spokesman: "I live in so many states and New Hampshire is one of them..."

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Friday, June 11, 2010

He who laughs last...

The movers and shakers in the Massachusetts Republican Party thought they had a sure-fire winner in the 10th Congressional District. And they may have be right when incumbent Bill Delahunt took himself out of the re-election game.

What we saw in the late winter was Jeff Perry, a photogenic, up-and-coming state representative from Sandwich. All that stood in his way was Joe Malone, a former state treasurer who left office under a cloud created by his top aides.

The battles of endorsements was a similar mismatch: Perry netted state GOP poster boy Scott Brown. Retread Malone scored the retread former mayor of New York, Rudy Guliani.

If only Perry had read the court documents in which his name appeared from his days as a sergeant in the Wareham Police Department.

Today's Globe follows up on solid reporting by the Cape Cod Times in raisin questions about Perry's actions as a supervisor of a Wareham cop who is now serving time over the illegal strip search of two teenage girls.

It's the sort of witches brew of issues that should make any candidate cringe, on par with the financial shenanigans linked to Malone's former associates.

In other words -- a level playing field with two now-tainted Republicans lined up against a five-term state senator who has proven he can win in the Cape and islands, the most Republican-leaning portion of the district that stretches along the South Shore up to Quincy. Or the Norfolk County District Attorney, Bill Keating.

Either way, the talk of GOP triumphalism in taking back at least one seat among the 10 congressional districts is now muted.

The new reports shed a bit more light on what Perry said and did during and after the incidents involving former officer Scott Flanagan. But for a party looking to promote a "no more business as usual" message, the lack of clarity and accountability on Perry's part is exactly the wrong message to send angry voters,

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Unequal opportunities

Not all hate speech is created equal. That's the clear message from the trashing of Helen Thomas by the hatemeisters of the right.

Let's stipulate that Thomas' remarks about Israel were hateful and thoughtless and marked an inglorious end to what had been a long and proud career. But the Globe's Joan Vennochi offers a thoughtful insight into the different levels of tolerance the United States.

Thomas, who became on opinion columnist after she left United Press International, leveled her hate from the left and the reaction was a resignation that was voluntary in name only.

Meanwhile, over on the right, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and the entire Fox News Channel makes a living peddling intolerance, resentment and just plain old hatred. They rake in the cash by the millions even while purveyors like Limbaugh don't even practice what they preach on questions like drugs and the sanctity of marriage to one woman.

It's not even fair to say that Thomas is being held to a different standard because of the nature of her sin -- anti-Semitism. There's a long and not-so-proud tradition of tolerance for that particular hatred, in the very medium that nurtures Limbaugh and Beck today.

As Vennochi points out, Beck engaged in that very rhetoric while regularly castigating Thomas.
Before her retirement was announced, he questioned why Thomas was still employed with this observation: “You know, may I tell you this Jewish-run media, really, they’re really bad at running the media, if they are indeed Jewish. You know what I mean? The Zionist masters really suck at being Zionist masters.’’ Sarcasm or anti-Semitism? Call the PC police.
More likely the explanation is the strange imbalance between tolerance of and by the left and right. Those who lean to the port are often more sensitive to the slurs and slights than those who lean starboard. The right, after all, created "The PC Police."

And while American voters have picked more liberals than arch conservatives as President the United States, we seem uneasy with left-leaning ideology, especially in contrast to the tolerance of right-wing bile. And the history of intolerance -- from the Palmer Raids to the McCarthy inquisitions to the Southern "justice" toward African-Americans -- is heavily weighted to the right.

In contrast we can offer the excesses of a small segment of the "New Left," the Weather Underground, Black Panther Party and similar fringe elements, who were dealt with swiftly and often brutally.

It's fair to say we will continue to see the right continue to get rich pummeling the left -- showing zero intolerance for the crude racist slams at Barack Obama and continuing to offer myths and lies in place of serious argument.

Perhaps the ultimate irony of the freedom we all enjoy: some people are allowed to be more intolerant than others.

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Scott Brown's priorities

When Deval Patrick crafted his version if the state's fiscal 2011 budget, Scott Brown was a state senator who had voted for the state's health care reform law. Today, US Sen. Scott Brown is threatening to blow up that budget -- inflicting serious pain -- in the name of the ideological crusade that sent him to Washington.

Patrick unveiled a contingency plan yesterday that slices another $800 million across the board. The reason? Congress has failed to act on a six-month extension of Medicaid reimbursements available through the federal stimulus plan. The money is part of a long-term federal commitment to fund health care reform.

But Brown, who stood up for banks and financial service firms and voted to spend federal dollars on a jet engine of questionable need has decided this is where he intends to take a stance against spending -- tossing Massachusetts and 29 other states into chaos, refusing to support a so-called tax extenders bill that contains the funding:
“I cannot support the extender bill because, as currently constructed, it includes billions in tax increases and deficit spending. As our national debt soars past the $13 trillion mark, we need to stop the deficit spending that is putting future generations of Americans in a deep financial hole. We are borrowing against our next generation. Washington must start offsetting the cost of worthy programs by cutting wasteful spending in other places. This requires elected leaders making hard choices, but our country’s economic stability requires that we reign (sic) in our excessive spending habits and get our fiscal house in order.”
Nice campaign speech, senator. Of course you didn't mention how that deficit was created by reckless tax cuts for the rich and unchecked spending on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But what about the realities that should trump the rhetoric, particularly in the home state you were elected to serve?

Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker was quick to blame Deval Patrick for counting on money he didn't have -- ignoring the fact that congressional leaders made a commitment to the funding last winter. The only thing to change since then was Brown's election.

Republicans have stood virtually united against the stimulus bill in the face of long economic theory -- and now hard evidence -- that government deficit spending is the only way to jolt an economy out of recession.

And the signs -- from a slowly improving jobs picture to rising GDP -- suggest the stimulus has worked despite initial GOP-inspired timidity not to spend as much as we really needed to pull out of the spiral.

Although Brown pledged to work for what's best for Massachusetts, he continues to seek approval from the Tea Party crowd. Rejection of the extenders bill -- despite the much needed $800 million infusion for the Bay State -- is the most recent example of a man talking out of both sides of his mouth.

If the Massachusetts Legislature is forced to follow through with the additional cuts because of a Brown-aided broken promise, voters should point their fingers at him when police, firefighters and teachers are laid off, when pools and libraries are closed.

But at least he stood up for GE and Mass Mutual.

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Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Money makes the world go 'round

What exactly was the Supreme Court thinking when it decided corporations didn't have enough speech?

Two stories -- from opposite sides of the divide -- point to the already overwhelming influence of corporate cash on our daily lives: one is civic-minded with limited potential to harm; the other, well, is a basic effort to buy goodwill and entree.

If the National Governors Association was not meeting in Boston, bringing an estimated $3 million in desperately needed tax revenues into state coffers, you could rest assured the Herald would be bleating about more than the $153,000 in annual dues the commonwealth's taxpayers subsidize. Like Deval Patrick taking a junket to some distant capital to lounge somewhere sipping cold ones while some crisis looms.

The Herald's DNA prohibits the possibility that professional public officials can get together and actually accomplish something significant by learning from each other. So be it. It's the fate of East Podunk readers to discover that Boston is a good destination to drop their tourist dollars.

Far more insidious -- and far more likely to expand under the ruling of the so-called non-activist high court -- is the dropping of tens of thousands of dollars by securities firms and the lawyers who work there on the public officials who manage and regulate their businesses.

While spokespeople might insist “there isn’t any connection between or relationship between campaign contributions and getting business,’’ it's a lot easier to get queasy over this relationship than some far-fetched belief of an "appearance of a conflict of interest" when a corporation help buy hot dogs for weenie roasts.

There are at least several layers between regulators like Treasurer Tim Cahill or Attorney General Martha Coakley and the lobbyists plunking down campaign cash. Nor in rare occasions, like Dianne Wilkerson, is there ever hard evidence of a direct exchange of cash for favors.

But if there was ever an appearance of a conflict of interest, it's when out-of-state firms doing business with the commonwealth plunk down their corporate cash on a candidate they cannot even elect (or in the case of Coakley, probably contributed to defeat in the Senate race).

So while I can't get too upset with funding weenie roasts, I do wonder when the cycle will stop, thanks to the supposed wise men on the Supreme Court. I certainly know it won't be in the coming months as the 2010 elections speed up.

In the meantime, let's take a closer look at those relationships and be nice to the tourists who show up as a result of the other corporate donations.

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Monday, June 07, 2010

Requiem for a heavyweight

I come to praise Helen Thomas. She buried herself.

But I also believe that a long and illustrious career as a trailblazing journalist -- keeping presidential feet to the fire for 50 years -- should not be measured simply by one ill-conceived, ill-tempered and frankly bigoted remark.

As a fellow alum of United Press International I cannot ignore the fact she was the symbol of a proud organization that always fought hard, even when it was outnumbered and outspent by the Associated Press.

UPI continues to exist to this day. But when Thomas ended her tenure -- after the news agency was sold to Rev. Moon's News World Communications --the agency's credibility left with her. That was the power and credibility of a junior reporter -- a woman at that -- who walked into the White House when John Kennedy was president and remained there through countless crises, always asking the tough questions.

It's important recognize that in a world that always accuses reporters of bias, wire service reporters are a special breed. They know how to keep their opinions out of stories -- because they usually have 300 words of less to tell them.

But that stricture fell away when she joined the Hearst News Service as a columnist. And like all columnists, Thomas, a Lebanese-American, was never one to hide her opinions.

This is also not a defense of Israel and what one New York Times op-ed columnist labeled its "blockhead" behavior in boarding a Turkish ship attempting to run its Gaza blockade. The difference is he did not posit an absurdity by suggesting Jews should return to countries where they were the victims of a Holocaust.

The ultimate pain of the endless Mideast stalemate is neither side has learned from history and are condemned to repeating it. Thomas is but the latest to fall into this trap.

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Desperate Governors of South Carolina

To those of us who think Tim Cahill's lurch to the right constitutes fun gubernatorial campaign hi-jinks, let us turn out sights to South Carolina.

You know the Palmetto State, where self-righteousness grows wild like kudzu. And where the current governor Mark Sanford, aborted a promising political career so he could hike the Appalachian Trail with his true love Argentinian soul mate.

It appears the Wanderin' Governor was only the opening act in a plot that would make a marvelous Bravo reality show.

Nikki Haley, a state representative, has vaulted into a commanding lead in the primary race to succeed Sanford after allegations not by one but by two political operatives that they um, also did a bit of hiking.

The candidate of course, professes her innocence and pushes right back.
"When you turn around and threaten their power and you threaten their money, they turn around and push back," Haley, a fast-talking and polished campaigner, told a crowd here on Saturday night. "But what they don't understand is I have a strong faith, I have a strong spine, and I have a strong husband that puts on a military uniform every day."
Naturally her spunk is attracting comparisons to the Alaskan role model of conservative politics.
"She is like Sarah Palin," Trudy Martin, 71, a retired nurse, said of Haley. "Sarah told them to take a hike -- the oil companies, the crooked Republicans. Nikki can do the same."
Personally I would have avoided the hike reference, but you get the idea. Some business as usual is different than others I guess.

Haley vows the stay the course unless the two men can prove they actually had affairs with her -- an interesting challenge to be sure.

And in the meantime, we are once again treated to the sights and sounds of the family values folks preaching a lot better than they are practicing. Darn good reality show if you ask me Bravo.

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Sunday, June 06, 2010

It's the charisma, stupid

Who would have ever guessed that Deval Patrick's resurgence from dead meat to front runner would be based on his ability to out-charisma the opposition?

But with the clouds starting to slowly lift over Massachusetts, it's the draping-buying, Cadillac-riding chief executive who has regularly expressed his disdain for the media who has a double-digit lead over the Republican money bags former health insurance executive and the bomb-throwing, falling off the right edge of the stage independent state treasurer.

How's it happen? Deval Patrick kicked into campaign mode.

In what's both a blessing and a curse, Patrick resembles the last Democrat to hold the Corner Office -- you remember the guy who talked about competence trumping ideology. Mike Dukakis put such a premium on getting the job done that he often forgot about the niceties of daily life when appealing to the public.

Yet the man slammed as The Ice Man by George H.W. Bush had a warm and friendly personality that really only came out when he wasn't in the spotlight -- a tough problem for a candidate.

I've had far less interaction with Patrick, but I've been impressed how intently he works a room, not wanting to miss a chance to meet everyone --even if they are not supporters, or even voters. There's a sincerity there which can't be faked.

I've also found Baker a pleasant presence, someone far more pragmatic in his approach to issues than he has come across on the trial.

But Baker has simply failed, so far at least, in connecting with the public. It's astounding that more than 60 percent pf the public doesn't have an opinion of him after almost a year of speculation and formal campaigning. Why that is happening is a problem which has already led to the jettisoning of one campaign manager.

We're only in June, five months from the final election and a lot can happen. But as of now, the race is among a determined incumbent who has finally found his voice, a career politician who has adopted slash-and-burn tactics to get to the next step and a competent and amiable bureaucrat who has failed to inspire anyone to his side except the folks with large checkbooks.

There's too much made in politics about a candidate's personality -- witness the current laments about Barack Obama's Mr. Spock-like calmness in the wake of countless disasters. But the public wants to be able to draw at least some human connection from a candidate -- which they have from Obama.

But so far, Baker simply hasn't been able to deliver.

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Saturday, June 05, 2010

Do the math Charlie

There he goes again. The commonwealth's one-time Secretary of Administration and Finance -- the man who knows what gets spend and where -- says the Massachusetts can have low taxes and a continued high level of local services.

All it takes is consolidating high-paying government jobs on Beacon Hill.

Let's see some numbers -- which jobs? How many thousands, perhaps millions, will it save? How does that contrast to the hundreds of millions in cuts necessitated by the Great Recession? Put some facts behind the assertions.

After all these years of the false premises and promises of Reaganonomics, of no taxes and continued spending -- and the massive Reagan and Bush deficits -- does anyone still believe that? Baker obviously assumes people will continue to fall for this argument no matter how many times it has been proven wrong.

And shame on him for peddling this con job.

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Friday, June 04, 2010

Masterful politics

Charlie Baker ought to consider hiring Boston Firefighters Union President Ed Kelly to run his campaign.

With a display of tactics and optics rarely seen in political campaigns, let alone in the Boston City Council chambers, Kelly turned Local 718 from goat to hero by offering to delay for one year a 2.5 percent raise won through arbitration in exchange for mandatory drug and alcohol testing.

Never mind the fact public safety workers are being laid off in droves in other cities and Boston is battling over proposed closings of neighborhood libraries. Firefighters will wait an extra year for a raise (no word whether they would also delay peeing in a cup for the same amount of time).
“Let’s work together. We want to work with this administration,’’ Kelly said, acknowledging that the proposed raises for firefighters come as the city lays off librarians, custodians, and workers in the city print shop. “We’ve made a credible, real concession in the face of our own not having a raise for over five years."
In one master stroke, Kelly likely toppled fence-sitting city councilors and ran circles around the vaunted political machine of Mayor Tom Menino.

Just how brilliant is the deal negotiated at the kitchen table of Councilor John Tobin Jr.?
The proposal put forward by the union would still potentially give firefighters two raises in a year, even if it delays that reality for 12 months, [city labor relations director John] Dunlap said. Those two potential pay increases would create havoc at the bargaining table, Dunlap said, as the city sits down with its other unions, who will want the same.
Well played Mr. Kelly. But what happens down the road to those librarians, custodians and print shop workers you stand in solidarity with today?

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Pardon the interruption -- Not!

We all realize newspapers are struggling to find the right economic mix to survive and that online advertising doesn't come close to replacing the revenue that came from print display ads.

But sales departments needs to understand that ubiquity is not the same as good placement. Case in point, the highly annoying interstitial ad for a wholesale club currently running on boston.com.

I've come to accept the one interruption they beg pardon for as I try to read my story. The second, not so much. By the 12th time that blankety-blank ad came up I was swearing I had no intention of ever patronizing that store (or offering a freebie here).

Just sayin...

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Thursday, June 03, 2010

A battle joined

The fireworks will start early on Beacon Hill this summer -- and last through the final days of July.

The Massachusetts Senate has fired a shot across the bow of the House with a proposal to authorize three casinos in the Commonwealth -- including one Indian-operated one -- but doesn't call for slot machines at the state's race tracks.

The bill slated for debate next week resembles the plan put forward by Deval Patrick a few years ago, the one shot down by a then anti-gambling House led by Sal DiMasi.

The proposal is a clear slap at current Speaker Robert DeLeo who has called for only two casinos and slots at the tracks -- most notably Suffolk Downs and Wonderland in his district.

That would be more than enough political drama in the waning days of the session -- a budget still to be resolved amid concerns about possibly disappearing federal health care dollars. Reining in health care costs is a key priority of Senate President Therese Murray -- a subject that doesn't move DeLeo like slots.

But that showdown only scratches the surface of the conflict likely after a defiant shot fired at all levels of government by two Massachusetts health insurers -- Blue Cross Blue Shield and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care -- who are calling for double-digit rate increases on individuals and small businesses even after being turned down on those hikes by the Patrick Administration.

Potential federal health care funding cuts could blow a $700 million hole in an already tight budget due to be in place by the end of the month, While that's too huge a chunk of change to take from just one place, it's likely state health spending -- and by extension access to services -- would take a major hit.

That's not the way Murray is looking to rein in costs: she's seeking long-term savings from insurers and providers. And that's a subject which apparently leaves DeLeo cold.

Fasten your seat belts. We're going to be treated to some high-stakes gambling of a different kind. Smart money says the house always wins, but I wouldn't put all my chips in on that bet.

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Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Scenes from the Massachusetts GOP

As Charlie Baker continues to struggle for the common touch that would enable his Republican gubernatorial candidacy to reach a majority of Massachusetts voters, he must sometime sit and wonder how it has come so easily for his fellow GOP-er Scott Brown.

The New York Times treats us today to yet another soft-focus look at #41 (just check out the number on his softball jersey!) telling us the junior senator from Massachusetts may be in the vanguard of the GOP's revival on the wings of Northeast moderates.

We learn the Tea Party is somewhat disappointed in their hero after his vote on financial reform legislation (why, he spoke to Barney Frank!) and are urging a "healthy sense of pragmatism, especially in a state as traditionally liberal as Massachusetts."

The Times of course fails to tell us about Brown's far-from New England GOP moderate stance on don't ask, don't tell of course. Harms the story line.

And while Brown soaks up the oxygen, Baker plods along in the low-to-mid 30s, finally moving past Tim Cahill thanks to the independent Republican Governor Association assault on the treasurer. His own very unfavorables are slightly better than Cahill's and he remains an unknown to the majority of Massachusetts voters.

Sometimes the lack of attention is a good thing. The Associated Press report that Baker collected $100,000 in board compensation on top of his $1.75 million salary in his final full year as head of Harvard Pilgrim Heath Care didn't receive a lot of media oxygen. But then again, neither did his "Had Enough" tour.

And after a campaign shake-up, Baker is leaving no stone unturned, sitting down at a Watertown diner to share a PBJ with Billy Costa.

And probably wondering how he can tap into some of Brown's media magic.

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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

The Finals: Rating the intangibles

As the days until Game One drag on, sports writers will be struggling to come up with new and different ways to fill space and air time writing about the 12th meeting of the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.

The Herald treats us to Kobe Bryant's studied nonchalance while the Globe offers us the fantasy game in which Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Bill Russell suit up for the Green across from Magic, Johnson, Jerry West, Kobe Bryant, Elgin Baylor, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (what no Paul Pierce?)

So in the interest of yet another perspective before Thursday night's tip-off, let me offer a few intangible match-ups:

On-the-court enforcer: The battle is between the Lakers' Ron Artest and the Celtics' Rasheed Wallace. Advantage Lakers. While Wallace has long been among the league leaders in scowling and collecting technicals, no one can match Artest for his 73-game suspension for inciting the Palace at Auburn Hills Fan Riot while a member of the Indiana Pacers.

Off-the-court: That would be Bryant versus Pierce. The LA shooting guard wins this one hands down. As a defendant in a sexual assault case dismissed when the accuser declined to testify, Bryant walks away from Pierce, who was merely an interested observer in the case where his knife-wielding attackers were sent to prison.

Ill-mannered journalist: Here the match up is closer, but KTLA's Ted Green edges out the Herald's Ron Borges. While the Plagiarizer tried to match Artest for incitement with a Game Six call-out against the Magic's Dwight Howard, Green wins this one with a cheap shot "Guide to Hating the Celtics" that mocked Pierce's stabbing. The LA Times unsuccessfully bleeped the offending words:
By the way, Pierce's idea of a fun night is going clubbing and getting stabbed. Good times!
Bench strength: No contest here. The whiny Sasha Vujacic has no real peer on the Celtics bench in matching big mouth with small accomplishments.

So the Lakers take the intangibles. What does that mean for the series? While Bryant says his team is aching for payback after the 2008 slapdown and has big man Andrew Bynum available at half speed, you can't ignore that Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo has morphed from first-time playoff contributor to one of the best players in the league.

Add to that the fact the Celtics are playing their best basketball of the season at the right time, knocking off Dwayne Wade, LeBron James and Howard in succession and the prospect of Bryant and his supporting cast doesn't really pose a terrifying challenge.

Celtics in 6.

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