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How Will Obama Govern?

For undecided-but-sane voters (e.g. those uninterested in guilt-by-association smears, endorsements from self-serving pols, and other campaign ephemera), that's among the key lingering issues about the frontrunner as voting day approaches. It's a question McCain tried to push in the final debate last week, by challenging Obama to name issues where he has stood up to the majority view of his party and it's special-interest lobbies. And those of us who think charter schools - a grassroots experiment in what public schools can achieve when freed from the onerous rules and ham-handed resistance to reform of teacher unions - offer hope of positive change and real opportunity for underpriveleged kids and their families were thrilled to hear Obama cite them as Exhibit A.

"I support charter schools and pay for performance for teachers. Doesn't make me popular with the teachers union. I support clean coal technology. Doesn't make me popular with environmentalists. So I've got a history of reaching across the aisle," said Obama. A bit later, he returned to the subject, noting that he and McCain agree on expanding the reach of charters: "I doubled the number of charter schools in Illinois despite some reservations from teachers unions. I think it's important to foster competition inside the public schools."

Great news! Bill and Hillary Clinton were also charter school advocates going back to their Arkansas days, but it's especially gratifying to hear the Democratic nominee on national TV in the campaign's waning days wear his bold support of charters as a badge of honor.

But this being the harvest season for spin, I decided to double-check Obama's claim about the Illinois charter bill, actually an expansion of charters in Chicago, home to scores of wretched conventional public school .

Here is the summary of what happened from the Illinois legislature's web site. As you can see, while the bill does indeed double the number of charters allowable under law in large Illinois cities, it places strict caps on the total number of charters allowed instead of allowing parental demand to define the supply, and bars for-profit entities from the chance to run charters, a setup that has resulted in quality educational opportunities for students elsewhere around the country. And Obama did not "reach across the aisle" to pass this bill; its chief sponsors (a month before Obama signed on) were a roll call of the Democratic leadership in the Illinois Senate, including the senate president and two of the assistant majority leaders.

There's certainly nothing wrong with what Obama did here. Given the teacher-union establishment's avowed intent to strangle charters in their cribs whenever possible, any support for them is welcome, however half-baked. But if this is really Obama's prime evidence of how he'll stand tall against party orthodoxy, it's disappointing, to say the least.

Jon Keller blogs regularly for WBZ-TV Boston at Keller @ Large

Sign of the (New York) Times

Count me as one of the growing circle who believe every day Democrats spend trying to demonize Sarah Palin - however sincere their belief that she isn't up to being president - is a day of damage done to Obama's chances in November. If Dan Quayle didn't hurt George H.W. Bush's 1988 campaign, Palin certainly won't hurt McCain. And if they're intent on trashing her, editorials masquerading as "news articles" like yesterday's front-page splash in the New York Times are most certainly not going to get the job done.

In the Times' lede, we learn that Governor Palin hired "at least five schoolmates" to help her run Alaska, "often at salaries far exceeding their private sector wages." When she "had to cut her first state budget, she avoided the legion of frustrated legislators and mayors. Instead, she huddled with her budget director and her husband, Todd, an oil field worker who is not a state employee, and vetoed millions of dollars of legislative projects." And some months back, the Times reports, a Palin aide called a local blogger critical of the governor and told her to "stop."

Armed with this initial volley of scandal (?), we get to the nut graf: 

"Ms. Palin walks the national stage as a small-town foe of "good old boy" politics and a champion of ethics reform. The charismatic 44-year-old governor draws enthusiastic audiences and high approval ratings. And as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, she points to her management experience while deriding her Democratic rivals, Senators Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr., as speechmakers who never have run anything. But an examination of her swift rise and record as mayor of Wasilla and then governor finds that her visceral style and penchant for attacking critics -- she sometimes calls local opponents "haters" -- contrasts with her carefully crafted public image. Throughout her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance, according to a review of public records and interviews with 60 Republican and Democratic legislators and local officials."

Oh my! That sounds bad. But right away, you get a feel for what this "news" article really is - a hastily produced attack piece with little meat on the bones.

Before laying our their "case," the Times reporters insert some "balance" in the form of praise for Palin's political instincts and populist appeal from a University of Alaska professor, who also says  "her governing style raises a lot of hard questions." (No specifics provided to support either the praise or the doubts.) And they quote the Alaska lieutenant governor claiming that: "Everything she does is for the ordinary working people of Alaska."

But then we're off to Palin's alleged dark side.

Continue reading "Sign of the (New York) Times" »

Sign of the (New York) Times

Count me as one of the growing circle who believe every day Democrats spend trying to demonize Sarah Palin - however sincere their belief that she isn't up to being president - is a day of damage done to Obama's chances in November. If Dan Quayle didn't hurt George H.W. Bush's 1988 campaign, Palin certainly won't hurt McCain. And if they're intent on trashing her, editorials masquerading as "news articles" like yesterday's front-page splash in the New York Times are most certainly not going to get the job done.

In the Times' lede, we learn that Governor Palin hired "at least five schoolmates" to help her run Alaska, "often at salaries far exceeding their private sector wages." When she "had to cut her first state budget, she avoided the legion of frustrated legislators and mayors. Instead, she huddled with her budget director and her husband, Todd, an oil field worker who is not a state employee, and vetoed millions of dollars of legislative projects." And some months back, the Times reports, a Palin aide called a local blogger critical of the governor and told her to "stop."

Armed with this initial volley of scandal (?), we get to the nut graf: 

"Ms. Palin walks the national stage as a small-town foe of "good old boy" politics and a champion of ethics reform. The charismatic 44-year-old governor draws enthusiastic audiences and high approval ratings. And as the Republican vice-presidential nominee, she points to her management experience while deriding her Democratic rivals, Senators Barack Obama and Joseph R. Biden Jr., as speechmakers who never have run anything. But an examination of her swift rise and record as mayor of Wasilla and then governor finds that her visceral style and penchant for attacking critics -- she sometimes calls local opponents "haters" -- contrasts with her carefully crafted public image. Throughout her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance, according to a review of public records and interviews with 60 Republican and Democratic legislators and local officials."

Oh my! That sounds bad. But right away, you get a feel for what this "news" article really is - a hastily produced attack piece with little meat on the bones.

Before laying our their "case," the Times reporters insert some "balance" in the form of praise for Palin's political instincts and populist appeal from a University of Alaska professor, who also says  "her governing style raises a lot of hard questions." (No specifics provided to support either the praise or the doubts.) And they quote the Alaska lieutenant governor claiming that: "Everything she does is for the ordinary working people of Alaska."

But then we're off to Palin's alleged dark side.

Continue reading "Sign of the (New York) Times" »

Too Much of a Good Thing

Let's start with the good news for Barack Obama fans - your guy did his usual excellent job last night. He delivered a well-written speech with his usual energy and eloquence. He looked great and sounded great. Presidential, you might say. He didn't go on too long. He didn't let the adoring crowd stall him out by letting their incessant cheering drag on. He was fine. He'll get a nice bump in the polls, and probably consolidate the progress he made this week uniting his party behind him.

OK, now, the bad news. The speech was too much. Too many promises of too much spending and too many profound changes without any real explanation of how they'll actually happen. Too much talk of a magical, mystical, impossible uniting of a country that has over the last century grown profoundly diverse and ideologically divided in ways that no politician can seriously hope to reverse. Too many nice turns of phrase to the point where none will likely stand out in any swing voter's mind past the weekend, if that. Keep in mind, this is typical of these big presidential nominee convention speeches. That's why so few of them are memorable to anyone but the party insiders.

John McCain will probably repeat the same mistakes next week at his convention. Because that's the kind of culture we have now, a culture of too much. This has always been a big country of big plans and big appetitites. But in recent decades we've become almost obese in so many ways. Too much cultural license without a restraining sense of taste. Too much political extremism. Too much of an edifice complex on things like the Big Dig and the Bush "democratization" of the Middle East. Too much narcissism, too much materialism, too much of everything, when all too often, less is really more. The Republican party has suffered from this disease; that's why they're rightly on the banana peel. But Obama-ism fits the mold too. And it leaves you to wonder - where's a fed-up voter to turn?

Jon Keller blogs regularly for WBZ-TV Boston at Keller @ Large

Michael Moore's Threat

The long wait is nearly over! Grateful voters will soon be able to read "Mike's Election Guide," by movie maker and deep political thinker Michael Moore. Fortunately for the impatient among us, Rolling Stone has excerpts posted on-line, and they are riveting.

In his "blueprint for losing the most winnable presidential election in American history" (geez, really? More than FDR's landslide 1944 re-election? ), Moore begins with a familiar angry-left litany of laments: Barack Obama is giving far too much credit to John McCain for being, among other things, a war hero; is being far too hawkish by talking tough on Iran and supporting Israel; and is in general brandishing a "peashooter" at a "gunfight." Intriguingly, Moore predicts fallout from all that genteel centrism in the form of ennui among Obama supporters, whom he characterizes as beer-swilling, trash-TV-addicted couch potatoes. (We are left to imagine his view of McCain backers, although an educated guess seems possible.)

But Moore doesn't stop with imperious contempt for the followers and candidate of the campaign he claims to support. He offers Obama a fail-safe political solution, one that could only have been devised by a totemic member of the "me" generation - drop what you're doing and embrace...ME.

Moore imagines that the press will inevitably ask Obama if he really welcomes Moore's endorsement. And what if the Democratic nominee should be so unwise as to downplay his association with a figure on the political fringe? Moore recalls the trauma of watching 2004 nominee John Kerry tell a TV interviewer he had not seen and had no plans to see Moore's anti-Bush polemic, Fahrenheit 9/11. "But he had indeen seen it," claims Moore. "I sat there watching him say this, and I just felt sorry for him and for the election he was about to lose." Yes - that's the same moment we all remember thinking Kerry was toast.

Continue reading "Michael Moore's Threat" »

Why Kerry Won't Debate

Here we go again with the familiar election-year ritual of entrenched incumbents ducking debates with their challengers. The Associated Press reports Sen. John Kerry is now saying that while he has instructed aide Roger Lau to "discuss the 'modalities' of a debate" with the campaign of Democratic challenger Ed O'Reilly,  he "just may not necessarily be able to" find time for one. 

Sure he can't. You know how grueling those modalities can be.

Anyway, predictably and justifiably, Kerry is taking his lumps for blowing off O'Reilly. The Globe editorial page spanked him this morning; op-ed columnist Joan Vennochi is said to be preparing her take, and knowing Joan, Kerry better have his asbestos suit on that day. But may I just say: why is anyone surprised? Kerry is simply demanding the same pass taken by Ted Kennedy in 2000 when he declined to debate GOP nominee Jack E. Robinson. In our one-party state, opinion-makers may find such disdain for the democratic process distasteful, but it seems few voters care. Up to a point, that is - while Ted got away with ignoring the hapless Robinson, a similar attempt to duck debates with Mitt Romney in 1994 was unsuccessful.

The funny thing is, with all due respect to O'Reilly, a debate with him offers little danger for Kerry, an accomplished debater. And by the way, WBZ's offer to host a televised debate still stands. But spare me hand-wringing from the political culture if Kerry's decides the modalities just aren't aligned. Why duck a debate? Because he can.

Jon Keller blogs regularly for WBZ-TV Boston at Keller @ Large

Kerry for VP?

Alert Boston Phoenix scribe David Bernstein has picked up some cable TV chatter about the possibility that Sen. John Kerry might be on the Obama list of possible vice-presidential nominees, to which I say - bring it on!

But wait just a darn second - isn't Kerry also seeking re-election to the US Senate? Why, yes he is, with primary opponent Ed O'Reilly and, should he advance, presumptive Republican nominee Jeff Beatty in line to challenge him.

So enquiring minds want to know - what happens if this Kerry-for-VP talk turns out to be more than just the delusional speculation of mid-August ennui? These are the key facts:

* There is no legal barrier to Kerry running for both VP and Senate. If he does and wins both, under the state law rammed through Beacon Hill in anticipation of Kerry's 2004 election to the presidency, Gov. Deval Patrick (if he's still governor) would have to set an election for the vacated Senate seat within 145 to 160 days of Kerry's Senate resignation. Of course, the legislature could conceivably change the law back again to empower Patrick to simply appoint someone to fill out the six-year term Kerry had just been re-elected to. Gosh, whom do you think he might appoint? Discuss.

* It's too late for Kerry to pull his name off the September primary ballot even if he wanted to, and too late for any other Democrat to get on there in light of a Kerry VP nomination. The only alternative would be to run on stickers, and he or she would have to beat both Kerry and O'Reilly.

* Let's say VP nominee Kerry wins the primary over O'Reilly and sticker candidate John Buonomo. (Or should that be sticky-fingered candidate?) And let's say public outcry over Kerry's electoral double-dip prompts anxious Democrats to prevail on him end his Senate candidacy. (Fat chance, but we're in fantasy land now, pipe down.) What then? Massachusetts law appears to stipulate that the Democratic State Committee would select a replacement. Oh brother. (I recommend DSC member Helen Corrigan of Somerville, as fine a political mind as our commonwealth has ever produced. Sorry Helen, that's probably the kiss of death.)

Jon Keller blogs regularly for WBZ-TV Boston at Keller @ Large

"99% Honest"

Ah...boomer political leadership in full flower. The untrammelled narcissism. The self-righteous indulgence in situational ethics. The sickly smell of moral relativism left out in the sun too long.

But the John Edwards debacle offers more than just this item's headline, an automatic inductee into the pantheon of political perp quotes alongside the likes of Bill Clinton ("it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is") and Richard Nixon ("I am not a crook"). It provides a useful opportunity to drain a chronic abcess in the political culture that could promote long term healing.

Edwards disciples (if there are any of you left), stop reading now, I really don't want to hurt your feelings. But the blunt truth is if you never previously noticed what a transparently oleaginous phony Edwards was, you are either extraordinarily naive or, more likely, susceptible to the cult of personality that successful politicians breed. This is nothing new - George Washington had his own image-making machine; Franklin D. Roosevelt fully embraced the emotional appeal of mass-media politics, pioneering techniques that Nixon and John F. Kennedy expanded on; from Huey Long to Ronald Reagan, effective populists of the left and right have relentlessly milked their personal appeal for political capital.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this. In a democracy, much should be demanded from those in political power. If human nature compels us to emotionally invest in a politician as a prerequisite for involvement in the process and high expectations, so be it.

But leave it to the "me" generation to overdo it. Baby boomer activists and voters subscribing to the generational conceit that political activism is an expression of one's deepest personal convictions -  and thus, politicians are a vehicle not just for a social cause, but for the validation of oneself - are distorting the system and enabling appalling egomania. In their clueless, fevered denounciations of Edwards critics over the years, his sycophants egregiously confused the righteousness they felt for their cause with the need to assert the righteousness of the candidate, in the face of glaring signs of the runaway narcissism Edwards has now confessed to. By blowing through all warning signs to build and worship this false idol, the Edwards cult could have crippled the party's chances this fall, and may still have done serious damage, set aside the clear harm done to the groups and social causes that had affiliated themselves with Sen. Oil Slick. This fiasco takes its place alongside other self-righteous boom-era political cults gone overboard, like Operation Rescue, the Ross Perot campaign, and MoveOn.org.

But maybe out of Edwards' slime, something useful might evolve. I propose a deal: if future candidates will abandon messianic politics and stop peddling themselves as personal saviors, we the people will stop investing them with unreasonable expectations. Under this agreement, John Edwards would run as a young, aggressive trial lawyer who would, as president, use those skills to game and bully the system into raising taxes to provide more social services, with an enhanced role for the unions and trial lawyers whose money and clout were the entirety of the Edwards campaign. Voters would review that platform, weigh its potential consequences for the nation, watch Edwards run to guage his toughness and self-discipline, and then decide if he makes the grade. No one would expect Edwards to be a saint (although they might still hope his word would be worth more than it is), and votes for him might be cast based more on what he might do for all of us than on how "good" he makes a voter feel. There would be less fuel for the candidate's narcissism, more realistic expectations among his supporters, and, if elected, less chance of a disproportionate backlash over the collapse that inevitably occurs when the Red Bull of boomer political worship wears off.

Jon Keller blogs regularly for WBZ-TV Boston at Keller @ Large

Obama's Smart Move

I don't know if offshore oil drilling will be a significant part of the solution to our energy problems. I don't trust either the don't-worry-be-happy hype of the oil industry types or the reflexive nay-saying of the no-drilling-anywhere crowd. And I certainly don't want to see the search for more oil take precedence over the long-overdue development of reliable, renewable alternative energy resources.

But I do think Barack Obama's about face on offshore oil drilling is good news, not least because it suggests the man is serious about being a pragmatic, effective leader. (Rather than stifle the buzz, I'll ignore his phony comment that his shift really isn't a shift at all. It's the heat of the campaign. Two-thirds of the stuff he and McCain are saying on any given day is liable to be preposterous political spin.)

"We have to compromise," Obama told the Palm Beach Post. "The Republicans and the oil companies have been really beating the drums on drilling. And so we don't want gridlock. We want to get something done." Yes, exactly right. Desperately-needed energy-policy reform has gone nowhere in Washington because the baby-boom political culture appears to abhor compromise of any kind. If gridlock and failure are the result, so what? Better that an entire nation should suffer than a single self-satisfied boomer activist should have to settle for half a loaf on a "matter of principle."

Obama's move is clearly a concession to political reality; his no-drilling stance was bombing with the voters. And his modest conversion won't please the droolers of the left who insist he be pure on all their hot-button fantasies. The slobbering right that sees deceit and conspiracy in everything Obama does will be similarly outraged. But what better signs can you have that a politician is on the right track?

Is it possible that the most overused political charge of modern times - that of "flip-flopper" - might have jumped the shark? It was overdone as a weapon against John Kerry in 2004, although he did beg for it with his "voted for it before I voted against it" gaffe. George W. Bush ran in 2000 as a non-interventionist in foreign affairs; what followed might well be called a flip-flop of gargantuan proportions. You need a fast computer to keep track of all of John McCain's policy compromises during the last year alone.

If it's purity you crave, buy a fancy diamond. The last thing we need in Washington is more ideological rigidity, litmus testing, and inaction caused by egotistical refusal to bend.

Jon Keller blogs regularly for WBZ-TV Boston at Keller @ Large

Justice Patrick? Not.

It's the baseless rumor that just won't go away, that a President Obama might appoint his old law school chum Deval Patrick to a seat on the Supreme Court.

Fun, but my guess is, totally false. I suspect the last thing a newly-elected Obama will want is a polarizing Supreme Court nominee whose hard-line views and actions at the Justice Department earned him the nickname "Quota King" in right-wing circles. Can you imagine the scene at the confirmation hearings as conservative - and moderate Democrat - senators quiz Patrick about his push for, in essence, backroom short-circuiting of the constitutional process for repeal of gay marriage, a prioritization of politics over law that earned him an indirect rebuke from the state supreme court?

However, unless I've been misled about the closeness of the relationship between the two men, I do believe Obama will reach out for Patrick should he win, more likely as a trusted player in an inside job like the White House staff or legal office. And I also believe Patrick might go for it, his protestations to the contrary notwithstanding. He aggressively markets himself as a governor for the long-term, whose most significant initiatives likely won't bear fruit for as much as a decade or more. Exit spin: hey, I've planted the seeds, now it's up to you all to make sure the harvest comes in, my commander-in-chief needs me. See ya.

Then again, who in their right mind would want to walk away from a staggering state economy, a hemhorraging state budget, sagging job-approval ratings, and near-daily sniping from virtually everyone around you?

Jon Keller blogs regularly for WBZ-TV Boston at Keller @ Large

Obama's Sin of Omission

That was a fine speech Barack Obama gave at the Wesleyan commencement Sunday. In fitting tribute to Sen. Ted Kennedy's long tenure in the Senate, Obama chose service to country as his topic. He cited the social and political activists of the 1960s - singling out Peace Corps volunteers and civil rights demonstrators - as early role models. And he told the graduates of the two stories that will command their attention as adults:

"The first is the story of our everyday cares and concerns - the responsibilities we have to our jobs and our families - the bustle and busyness of what happens in our own life. And the second is the story of what happens in the life of our country - of what happens in the wider world. It's the story you see when you catch a glimpse of the day's headlines or turn on the news at night - a story of big challenges like war and recession; hunger and climate change; injustice and inequality. It's a story that can sometimes seem distant and separate from our own - a destiny to be shaped by forces beyond our control.

And yet, the history of this nation tells us this isn't so. It tells us that we are a people whose destiny has never been written for us, but by us - by generations of men and women, young and old, who have always believed that their story and the American story are not separate, but shared. And for more than two centuries, they have served this country in ways that have forever enriched both."

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