Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Scott Brown is at once appealing, appalling and even a cause for optimism

Scott Brown drew a huge crowd to a New England Council breakfast this week. His speech was a reminder of the regular-guy appeal that won him the seat last January and the power he is currently relishing as the 41st vote in the U.S. Senate, a guy who can stop a filibuster or put a closely partisan bill over the top. He also demonstrated enormous hubris about his importance in the national dialogue and a reluctance to deal in nuance and context.

First, the regular-guy appeal. His campaign-style delivery dishes out slogans that are simple and capture the mood of much of the electorate. “There’s only so much spending that we can do,” he reminds folks, talking about how “People are frustrated about overspending,” and “Washington is not doing the people’s business. Anyone running for office should have to…have the experience of waking up in the middle of the night wondering if they can make payroll.” Members of the largely business audience nodded in agreement. He decried the campaign disclosure bill then under discussion because it distracts from the issue of job creation. “Seven days left (in the session) and they want to spend time on this?” he asks.

“Six months ago, I was Scott Brown from Wrentham driving the truck. I still have the truck. It’s in D.C. The only difference is: today I could probably sell it for $100,000.” Of course he gets a good laugh from the audience. And another when he says, “When I get the crap kicked out of me every day from the left and the right, I must be doing something right.”

(This unassuming aspect to our truck senator is particularly appealing, given the public relations pickle that our senior senator has gotten himself into because of where Kerry has been docking his new $7 million luxury yacht. But the contrast between the two senators is about far more than their choice of transportation.)

Let’s move from Brown’s appealing to his appalling moments. To show his distrust of extending unemployment benefits, he told how North Carolina Congressman Heath Shuler had hosted a job fair and “only three people showed up for 100 jobs.” Brown said the people “didn’t want to work because they are on unemployment.” I suspect that unemployed workers who think like that are few and far between; you don’t pull in enough on unemployment benefits to support a family adequately. More importantly, I spoke to Congressman Shuler’s office. Staff person Myrna Campbell told me that Scott Brown’s story is an urban myth that somehow got into the media. While Rep. Shuler has had some job fairs, the event in question was not a job fair, and there were no jobs being offered. It was an informational session for small business owners and community college professionals about the state of the marketplace and how to prepare people for the workplace.

Our truck senator was shockingly dismissive when asked whether he felt aggressive deficit-cutting at this time in our fragile recovery might be premature in light of the nation’s experience in 1936, when, out of concern for the deficit, President Roosevelt pulled back from the stimulus initiatives of the early 1930’s and prolonged the Great Depression. Brown said bluntly, “I don’t buy that.”

Brown also asserted that “the stimulus bill hasn’t created one single job!” Take the census workers out of the equation, and the stimulus bill has both created jobs on roads, bridges and other badly needed infrastructure projects and has staved off the loss of jobs for teachers, police and firefighters.

Brown dismissed the stimulus bill as a wasteful indulgence in photo ops announcing bridges and road projects that don’t create jobs. His approach to job creation is no tax increases, don’t increase the deficit, get the “money owed to us” (not sure what he means buy that), reducing the payroll tax, and then “targeted stimulus” for transportation and infrastructure improvements. So how is that different from what we have been doing on infrastructure?

To hear him talk, his negotiation may in fact have been the determining factor in getting a financial services regulation bill passed. But he’s less convincing when he attributes President Obama’s heightened interest in job creation to a conversation Brown had with him in the Oval Office. In his newcomer enthusiasm, he needs to avoid the pitfall of overweening pride.

But here’s a possible cause for optimism regarding Scott Brown. He quite rightly says he doesn’t work for Harry Reid and he doesn’t work for Mitch McConnell either. He says he can play a significant role in helping to build a bi-partisan caucus involving moderate Republicans, like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, as well as Democrats like Warner, Casey and Udall. And, if he can deal with folks on both sides of the aisle, find common ground and decide things on an issue-by-issue basis, if he can do his homework and not descend into slogans that reinforce his Tea Party-type notions, he can make a significant difference in how Washington does its business.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Shirley Sherrod incident shows race in U.S. remains touchy subject

Sometimes you just have to pile on, which is why I feel compelled to weigh in on the firing and potential rehiring of Shirley Sherrod by the U. S. Department of Agriculture. The executing arm may have been that of Secretary Tom Vilsack, but the Obama administration is on the hook for this unprofessional and egregious act of political correctness. That Vilsack took the action based on one piece of video lifted out of context by the sleazy likes of Andrew Breitbart is disconcerting in the extreme, especially because Breitbart’s baldfaced motive was to hijack public discussion, led by the NAACP, about the Tea Party movement’s racist members.

The goal of the 2+ minute Breitbart video, as explained by former MA Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, was “to prove that the Department of Agriculture was engaged in illegal, fraudulent activities that were supported by NAACP and Democratic and progressive leaders, including the Obama administration.”  The video, viewed in its 43-minute entirety,  showed Sherrod at an NAACP event last March 27th telling how in 1986, dealing with a particular white farmer, she had grappled with race. Forty-five years ago, her father was murdered by a white man, who was never prosecuted. She described how she had overcome an instinct to stereotype. Her March 2010 speech described her very personal odyssey of understanding and growth and revealed how she had come to recognize that the “struggle is about poor people.” The problem we face, she said, is not white, black or Hispanic. The problem is poverty, lack of access and lack of power.

Enter Fox’s Breitbart, who lifted a small portion of her speech to demonstrate that not only was the Obama administration engaging in a form of racism but the NAACP was condoning it. And the administration, so fearful of being viewed as biased (which was part of USDA history), fired Sherrod (excuse me, demanded her resignation) without a) considering the source of the accusation or b) reviewing her speech in its entirety. Even the NAACP dumped on her. Shame on them. And, of course, the mainstream media, no less than the talking heads on the fringe, bought the lie and joined the collective expression of outrage and condemnation. It wasn’t just Fox; it was across the spectrum, including the likes of MSNBC.

When the truth was revealed, Breitbart compounded the communications felony on CNN by suggesting that maybe the white farmer and his wife, who defended Sherrod, were imposters planted by Sherrod to save her job!

Secretary Vilsack and White House spokesman Robert Gibbs apologized to Sherrod. Fox’s Bill O’Reilly apologized for his buy-in. As a Boston Globe editorial pointed out, this incident should give pause to anyone who has ever said anything that, taken out of context, could prove to be embarrassing. The incident also shows how race is still a third rail in American life.

It’s complicated. As the NY Times’ Maureen Dowd observed, Obama’s “closest advisers — some of the same ones who urged him not to make the race speech after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright issue exploded — are so terrified that Fox and the Tea Party will paint Obama as doing more for blacks that they tiptoe around and do less.”

Two years ago, pundits referred to Obama as “post racial,” meaning that the electorate saw his qualifications and not his race as determinative. The Sherrod case shows that race remains an issue in a perverse way, a hyper-sensitivity that regrettably can override common sense and fair play.

As Sherrod told the NAACP in that March meeting, paraphrasing author Toni Morrison, we have to get to the point where race exists but doesn’t matter. But we won’t get there if politicians and the media don’t do their homework and allow themselves to be manipulated.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Pols and Media confuse the public on new education standards

Question 1: What has shed more heat than light? Select from: a) Massachusetts politicians b) Massachusetts media c) the public debate about replacing Massachusetts testing standards with new national ones. Answer: all of the above.

Massachusetts’ education standards and testing achievements, first adopted in the Education Reform Act of 1993, have helped place the Commonwealth at the top nationally in education achievement. Not surprising then that the recent move to newly adopted national “Common Core” standards in English and math seemed like a classic case of “if it ain’t broke, mess with it anyway.” Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker sped to Beacon Hill to argue it would be a big mistake. Independent candidate Tim Cahill decried that “the Patrick administration has decided to put Washington ahead of our children and the future of our state.”

The Boston Herald warned that “Massachusetts public schools, the nation’s best, will be unacceptably dumbed down.” By contrast, the Boston Globe praised the new standards for emulating standards in Singapore, Korea and other countries that do well in science and technology.

WCVB-TV Channel 5’s report noted that Republican Senator Richard Tisei wants Attorney General Martha Coakley to check Gov. Deval Patrick's e-mails to determine if there's any connection between the proposed change in policy and the Massachusetts Teachers Association's decision to endorse Patrick for re-election. To its credit, Fox25 did a thoughtful nearly-five-minute interview with Boston School Superintendent Carol Johnson that explored the topic in a balance way. It doesn’t seem to have been the norm.

For some, the move has been praised because moving to the national standards will make Massachusetts eligible for millions of federal “Race to the Top” dollars. For others, including Globe columnist Joan Venocchi, we are selling our kids to the highest bidder. It has all been very confusing.

What’s been nearly lost in all the rhetoric is a presentation of what specifically the federal and state standards are and what they’re designed to achieve. In other words, coverage of the issues has been all about the histrionics and little about the history, math, reading and science.

The MA Board of Education web site  asserts that “The Common Core Standards will continue to be assessed through the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS), ensuring that all Massachusetts students continue to achieve at the highest levels in the nation and preparing them to succeed in the global economy.” So does that mean that MCAS isn’t going away? As Ed Board Chair Maura Banta explained to me in a telephone interview, there will still be MCAS to measure the success of the standards. MCAS changes every year anyway and will now be the vehicle for assessing the Common Core standards, 90% of which are based upon Massachusetts standards anyway.

States are free to deviate from Common Core standards up for 15 percent, so our autonomy shouldn’t be an issue. Furthermore, Massachusetts educators have had input into the national standards for more than a year. Banta said the state will continue its involvement in an effort to see that what is unique to Massachusetts is incorporated into the federal standards.

Unfortunately, scouring the media has yielded only the most minimal explanations that the national math standards will include more on statistics, and the new English standards will lean more toward expository writing and informational text reading than fiction reading and creative writing. Banta said that reading literature won’t go away. She added that, in math, the idea is to lay the groundwork of math literacy before rote learning of multiplication tables, for example.

Support for the change from the Mass. Business Alliance for Education, the group that pushed for the original ed reform act, under the leadership of the late Jack Rennie, is somewhat reassuring, as is the support from other business groups that most need a highly educated workforce. So too is Banta’s insistence that, “No way would we sell our own standards short. The Core Standards are at least as good and, in some places, superior to what we have now.” And, she adds, “If you don’t look at what you’re doing and ask how to make it better, you risk becoming irrelevant.”

The school districts will have two years to align their curricula to the new standards. But wouldn’t it be nice if the media and politicians had provided the public less bloviation and more specifics that answer the questions: What do our kids need to know, and what are they being taught?

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Hand-held cell phones: driving to distraction

The following people are just some of the reasons that safe driving advocates like State Senator Brian Joyce must be so frustrated. The owner of a blue Toyota, MA license 693HG8, on June 25 swinging onto Morrissey Bouldvard, swerving in front of us because talking on her cell phone  prevented her even being aware that she was cutting us off.

Or, the driver of a dark Audi, MA license 55X600, at 6 p.m. on June 29, totally ignoring a yield sign on I-95 so totally absorbed was he in his cell phone conversation.

Or, the owner of a silver car (sorry, I didn’t get the make) MA license 718W81 at exit 4 to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on July 2nd, slithering across three lanes, cutting in front of us, without a signal because, of course, he had one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding the cell phone to his ear. (Please be assured that I was not driving while making these observations and writing down license numbers.)

These folks obviously don’t know each other, but they certainly have a lot in common. They are representative of the driving danger that adult cell phone users present and who get off scot-free in the Safe Driving Law recently passed by the Massachusetts legislature, a watered down version of what Brian Joyce has been pushing for years.

Joyce, of course, has been particularly focused on elderly drivers and the desirability of having them tested routinely for competency. What emerged was a meek requirement that those 75 years or older have a vision test every five years and go the Registry to apply for their renewals. I’m not there in age (though every year I get closer), and it would also have been fine to set the age limit at 80, but frankly I’ve seen and read enough about crashes caused by older drivers to think some additional testing would be supportable. There’s broad support of limits on teenagers due to their inexperience. Our oldest drivers have plenty of experience, but it’s counter-intuitive to think that, as a group, we/they aren’t subject to a higher rate of physical and cognitive deficits.

Yes, it’s good that lawmakers banned texting while driving (a no-brainer) and cell phone use by teens. But lawmakers didn’t go far enough. Tom Vanderbilt, in his comprehensive book “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says about Us), notes that nearly 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of the near crashes involved drivers who were not paying attention to traffic for up to three seconds before the event. That’s why the legislature still needs to deal with hand-held cell phone use by adult drivers.

This map shows states that ban driving while using a hand-held cell phone. One can only hope that the next legislative session will produce a requirement that all drivers use a hands-free device.

Vanderbilt writes that “cell phones in cars have contributed to the seeming death of signaling for turns.” (See my third example.) He also points out that “keeping one’s eyes on the road is not necessarily the same thing as keeping one’s mind on the road.” Cell phones take up brain capacity to process other unexpected events, especially hazards coming from our sides, those in our peripheral vision.

Yes, simply talking is still a distraction, but so are putting on lipstick, quieting down the kids in the back seat, listening to talk radio, or eating a sandwich. However, it's unrealistic to think of eliminating these. Add hand-held cell phone distraction to the mix, stir in a measure of travel frustration and inter-driver competition, and you have a potentially lethal brew. Hand-held cell phones are something that can be controlled, and, next session, that’s exactly what the legislature should do.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

John Kerry gets real

Something is happening with John Kerry. The state’s senior senator seems to be finding his real voice. He is coming across as authentic, not usually a word traditionally associated with him. Maybe losing the Presidency in 2004 has freed him to speak out without seeming to weigh the political consequences of each and every word and action.

Take today’s op ed piece in the Washington Post.  He blasts (2012) presidential candidate Mitt Romney for opposing the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia. Kerry notes that, “Even in these polarized times, anyone seeking the presidency should know that the security of the United States is too important to be treated as fodder for political posturing.” He cites strong Republican support from Richard Lugar, Ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Kerry chairs. He also notes Republican Henry Kissinger’s support of this new START treaty.

And then, with more than a little tongue in cheek, Kerry writes “I have nothing against Massachusetts politicians running for president. But the world's most important elected office carries responsibilities, including the duty to check your facts even if you're in a footrace to the right against Sarah Palin. More than that, you need to understand that when it comes to nuclear danger, the nation's security is more important than scoring cheap political points.”

Kerry has forcefully defended the President’s recess appointment of Donald Berwick to head Medicare and Medicaid, calling out the Republicans' hypocrisy and even standing up to his Finance Committee Chairman,  Max Baucus (D-MT).
E.J. Dionne also notes that Kerry has changed. Dionne wrote, “One of the strangest lead sentences I have ever encountered appeared in Politico last week.It read: "John Kerry has been the most aggressive advocate of climate change legislation in the Senate this year -- so aggressive that it's rubbed some of his colleagues the wrong way." So there you have it: Once criticized for being too aloof and patrician, Kerry is now being assailed for daring to have passion for the cause of reducing the amount of carbon we are pumping into the atmosphere.

“Note that none of this is about the legislative merits. Kerry is being criticized for caring too much about an issue and not thinking enough about an election -- for being insufficiently opportunistic and unprincipled.”

You gotta love it.       

I even am charmed by Kerry’s sending out a message to his email list (as reported in the Boston Globe to encourage their support of Kevin Youkilis for the all-star team. Once I would have found it totally contrived to be political. Now I just get a sense that Kerry is enjoying himself and comfortable enough in his skin to be playful. Besides, Youk certainly is worthy of that slot. And it does mean that Kerry isn’t afraid to alienate supporters of NY Yankees outfielder Nick Swisher.

Full disclosure: a lifetime ago, John Kerry was a panelist on Five on Five, a weekly public affairs discussion program I did for WCVB-TV,Channel 5. But, even after three years of working together, the connection, while cordial, has never been close. I often felt his every move was calculated to advance himself politically. Now I get the sense the John Kerry has hit his stride, and the result, (dare I say it?), is likable! You go, John.

- Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below