What You See – What You Get

By Dennis Pastore

[A shorter version appeared in the Berkshire Eagle, 3 Nov 2012 under the title, “What You See and What You get.”  http://www.berkshireeagle.com/ci_21919062/what-you-see-and-what-you-get?IADID=Search-www.berkshireeagle.com-www.berkshireeagle.com]


“Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”  John Adams addresses the jury in the trial of eight British soldiers accused of directing musket fire at an unruly mob of protesters in Boston on the night of March 5, 1770.  Townspeople call it a massacre; five protesters die of their wounds.  Tensions are high.

Adams accepts the assignment to serve as counsel for the accused.  He is committed to the principle, according to biographer David McCullough, that every person has the right to a fair trial.  Six of the men are acquitted.

Now, a contemporary example of civic virtue: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers,” exclaims pollster Neil Newhouse.  He is pushing back against journalists on the accuracy of specific characterizations of President Obama’s record echoing from the podium at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, FL.

Republican Scott Brown describes himself as “the second most bipartisan” member of the U.S. Senate, and cites media rankings to prove it.  His critics point to analysis that shows a more partisan bent.  In today’s political climate, “facts” can depend on your perspective – or the fine print.  And qualities of character manifest themselves behind a veil of social marketing research.  The ram-tough, get-it-done image Brown likes to project to voters – fact or fiction – is a likeable everyman.  But like Goethe’s Faust, he risks losing his political soul in a devilishly partisan arena.  Or are we victims of a classic bait and switch?

Think of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as the chief operations officer of a commercial airline.  Severe weather threatens a major hub.  To deliver on commitments to your customers, you build enough flexibility into your system so you can add flights, reroute planes, and adjust airspeeds to rebalance your network.  For extreme disruptions, you negotiate contingency agreements with competing airlines and ground-based carriers.  The mathematics can be daunting, and the precise contribution of any single action, difficult to assess.

A handful of senators on both sides of the aisle will vote against the majority of their own party on a given issue.  McConnell understands this.  But when solidarity counts, you expect loyalty from your caucus.  A personal request from the minority leader can be hard to refuse.  “I have already let it be very clearly known to Mitch McConnell that I’m completely disgusted by what’s going on down there, and he has a lot of work to do to earn my vote.” A statement like that can disarm your critics, but it also rings false.  You can even picture the Minority Leader, a political pro, suggesting the disclaimer himself.

Since losing their majority in 2006, Senate Republicans have made the filibuster their tactic of choice.  To counter a threat, Democrats must put together a three-fifths majority (60 out of 100 votes) to bring even routine measures to a vote.  In 2010, Scott Brown became the 41st Republican vote in the Senate.  In 2009, Democrats defeated nine out of ten filibuster challenges.  Since Brown’s arrival, the Democratic majority has prevailed only half of the time.  This is the face of bipartisanship today.  This is what gridlock looks like.

Scott Brown has said he would stand up for the interests of women – until they conflict with Catholic teachings or the political calculus of his own party.  In March, he supported the Blunt Amendment, a measure that would have allowed employers, based on their “religious beliefs or moral convictions,” to offer medical plans to their employees that do not cover all of the procedures listed under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).  Critics attacked the measure primarily as an attempt to deny women coverage for contraceptive care and services, but the language of the amendment would have allowed exemptions for virtually any procedure mandated under the health care act.

Reiterating his prochoice sympathies, Brown defended his vote on religious grounds: “I’m not going to be pitting Catholics against their [whose?] church and their [whose?] faith.”  If that failed to convince, he offered the more principled objection to a “mandate from Washington” and “its many intrusions on our fundamental rights.”  So the Blunt Amendment was just one more thrust in the death-by-a-thousand-cuts Republican strategy to undo the promise of guaranteed universal access to a basic slate of health care services for all Americans.

Elizabeth Warren is a smart lawyer and a distinguished legal scholar, deliberate in her reasoning, consistent on principle to the point of being boring.  A vigorous champion of women’s rights, she supports a level-playing field for all stakeholders in the economy along with transparency on Wall Street and in the public forum.  And her record shows that she means what she says.

Barak Obama may not be in danger of losing the state’s 11 electoral votes (though he could still lose the election), but the contest between Republican incumbent Scott Brown and Democratic challenger Elizabeth Warren for the U.S. Senate has enormous implications for the ability a second term President Obama to carry out his agenda over the next four years.  Vote this time with more than appearances in mind.

Dennis Pastore is an economist and writer from Adams who currently lives in Silver Spring, MD


About Dennis Pastore

Dennis Pastore serves with the Peace Corps in the Ban Khai district, Rayong province, of Thailand helping to teach English to elementary and middle school students at Wat Huanghin School. A former economist with the Economics and Statistics Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce, he has also taught history and German as a foreign language at high schools in Maryland and Massachusetts.
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