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Military fathers want Pentagon to allow daughters into combat

November 30, 2012 01:45 PM

On Thursday, I wrote a column about litigation against the Defense Department challenging the female combat exclusion rules. The four plaintiffs are all Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans, some have been wounded, and one received the Purple Heart. They all faced conditions the dictionary calls combat, but the Pentagon won't to avoid technically violating the rule. The combat exclusion rules, according to the plaintiffs, deprived them of promotions and access to training that is afforded to their male counterparts. Given the nature of warfare today, the combat exclusion rules have run their course.

The column focused on the litigation strategy and what it would mean to defend the case. I urged that the Pentagon drop the exclusion rules now and simply address (without being forced to by a court) the inevitable and full integration of women.

I have written on this subject about a half a dozen times. So I was anticipating a typical reaction: I didn’t know what it is like to fight in war; the presence of women would change troop cohesion; women in combat would create emotional strains on male soldiers if they were kidnapped; women don’t have the physical stamina; etc. etc. Often well meaning, sometimes just downright mean, I was prepared for the usual complaints.

What I didn’t anticipate was waking up Thursday morning to a flurry of emails from men, many of them high-ranking men, who thanked me for saying what they couldn’t. The emails kept coming. And the reason why they wanted to end the exclusion rules: their daughters.


Finding the silver lining in the AP's race survey

November 26, 2012 06:03 PM

Just before election day, the Associated Press released a national survey that indicated that general anti-black attitudes among Americans have increased with four years of the first African-American president, Barack Obama. The AP, assisted by researchers from Stanford University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Chicago, found that “anti-black sentiments jumped to 56 percent, up from 49 percent” in 2008.

The cup half-empty interpretation of the results is that the presence of a black man as arguably the most powerful person on the planet has not resulted in a major shift on perceptions of African Americans.

But there was plenty in the survey for those who want to see the cup as half full. One example was the response to the statement, “Over the past few years, blacks have gotten more economically than they deserve.” That sentiment has often been bitterly expressed in controversies over affirmative action and welfare. Twenty percent of Americans agreed with the statement, while 27 percent disagreed.

But the biggest percentage of respondents were neutral, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. The percentage happened to be 47 percent. Such a response is a quiet repudiation of Mitt Romney’s famous assertion that 47 percent of Americans wanted

Anti-black sentiments may indeed have a long way to go despite Obama winning a second term in the White House. But the 47 percent of Americans who are neutral and the 27 percent who disagree makes for three quarters of Americans who no longer fall for the harshest of stereotypes of black people wanting something for nothing. That has to mean something good for the future of race relations.

In his Burma visit, Obama should press generals for genuine democratic change

November 16, 2012 06:20 PM

When President Obama arrives in Burma Monday for a brief visit, he will have to walk a fine line. He wants to bask in a foreign-policy success, the restoration of relations with the once-outcast nation, but he risks highlighting how he’s been duped by a predatory military dictatorship that still holds all the meaningful levers of power. The obvious sign that Burma's generals feel they can toy with Obama is that they pledged to release all of some 300 remaining political prisoners for his ground-breaking visit, but instead have freed only 452 common criminals.

Having prematurely suspended most sanctions on Burma, Obama has left himself bereft of the most valuable cards he might otherwise play in his talks with Thein Sein, the retired general who now wields power as a civilian president in a business suit. But the military rulers who stand behind the reformist president retain nearly all their cards. Their bogus constitution accords them control of Parliament and the government, leaves their gargantuan holding companies in possession of the economy's commanding heights, and prevents any civilian authority from overseeing the army's budget, its brutal campaigns against ethnic minorities, or its relations with North Korea and China.


Mass. politics play a role in John Kerry’s cabinet prospects

November 14, 2012 12:22 PM

Would John Kerry make a good Secretary of Defense? Forget, for a minute, about his wonky side. Forget the fact that his father was a foreign service officer and that he almost certainly has his heart set on the patrician pursuit of diplomacy, rather than the chess game of military might. Consider the fact that John Kerry served for more years in the military than Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates or Leon Panetta. (He likely has more combat experience than the three of them combined.)

A long-time foreign policy hand based in Washington DC told me this morning: “Kerry carried an M-16 through the jungle. This is a man who was shot at in Vietnam. He cares deeply about military issues and is good with budgets. He has gravitas and the respect of world leaders. He already knows intelligence issues.”

The Pentagon might play to Kerry’s strengths - his knowledge of policy and strategy – while downplaying his weaknesses. Defense Secretaries work behind the scenes. They don’t have to be all that charismatic. While Kerry has never run anything close to the size of the leviathan of the US military, the Pentagon tends to be well-oiled machine that can withstand some management snafus at the top.

But there is another reason that the Obama administration is floating this trial balloon: It solves the unfortunate problem of Scott Brown.

Appointing Kerry to a cabinet post now would mean vacating a senate seat that Scott Brown could easily win. (Defeat is only temporary, remember?) That would erode the Democrats’ thin majority in the Senate. But if Panetta can hang on for another two years, Democrats could wait to see how they do in the 2014 elections before taking the risk of giving up Kerry’s safe seat.

But it is, in many ways, a shame that these political calculations play such a large factor in the Secretary of State sweepstakes.

For the past four years, the Obama administration has leaned on Kerry as its foreign affairs Fix It Man. When Pakistani authorities arrested CIA contractor Ray Davis and refused to let him go, the Obama administration sent John Kerry over to get him out. When Afghan president Hamid Karzai refused to accept the results of an election, Kerry was asked to convince him to do it. When Sudan looked like it was about to slide back into a devastating civil war, Kerry travel three times to the troubled African country, relaying carefully-worded messages from the Obama administration aimed at keeping the peace process on track. When the Muslim Brotherhood looked like it was on the verge of winning political power in Egypt, Kerry was the first senior American official to meet with them.

Add to all that to the fact that it was John Kerry who gave Obama his first shot on the national stage - Obama’s keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National convention - and you can understand how Obama might feel he owes John Kerry something.

Floating Kerry’s name for Defense Secretary allows the administration to show its appreciation for Kerry, while buying time for Scott Brown’s campaign machinery to melt away.

Farah Stockman can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.

Better oversight of compounding pharmacies won't solve the bigger problem of unnecessary medical procedures

November 13, 2012 01:15 PM

At last count, 32 people are dead and 438 are seriously ill as a result of the fungal meningitis outbreak that has been traced to the New England Compounding Center, the pharmacy based in Framingham. Since the story broke last month, each new report has brought a fresh reason for outrage. More deaths from fungal meningitis linked to the company's contaminated product. More states with stricken patients. More details of how the company failed to maintain equipment and even falsified safety tests.

All this is bad enough, but there's another aspect to this story that is equally shocking. The company's product is unnecessary. The patients who developed meningitis, including those who died, were given a drug combination that had little if any chance of doing them any more good than a safer treatment.


Michael Barone vs. Nate Silver: Don't count war-horse pundits out just yet

November 8, 2012 01:10 PM

Don't count the nation's bloviating pundits out just yet.

The final weeks of the presidential campaign shaped up not just as a battle between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, but between such number-crunching election prognosticators as Nate Silver and old war horses like Peggy Noonan and Michael Barone.

And in any fair world, the latter, who make confident predictions based on their gut instincts and memories of past campaigns, would feel chastened by how wrong they were. "All the vibrations are right," explained Noonan, the famous speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, when she predicted a Romney victory this week. Barone, who as the longtime author of the Almanac of American Politics knows the nation's political geography better than almost anyone, foresaw a Romney landslide in the leanings of Northern Virginia Asians and in the dearth of Obama signs on Wisconsin college campuses. Meanwhile, a host of cable-TV commentators went to the other extreme of caution, insisting to the end that the race was simply too close to call.

Silver's mathematical model FiveThirtyEight, meanwhile, relied on a vast database of current and historic polling data. For weeks before the election, it predicted an Obama victory with ever greater confidence, and it called every state right in the end. Other models that simply took averages of numerous polls performed just about as well. The bottom line was that actual numbers from reputable polling firms provided real insight into who might win a race. Who knew?

The clear superiority of the statistical approach would, ideally, narrow the scope of political punditry. Reasonable people can argue about whether Romney's economic plan was better or worse than Obama's, or whether Republican Party should move to the right or the center after losing a seemingly winnable election. But when it comes to predicting who will win which states -- or saying the race is too close to make any prediction -- isn't it better just look at hard numbers?

Still, Silver's clairvoyance has triggered a mini-backlash. Beyond the pollsters who fret that Silver and other aggregators are free-riding on others' work, other statistics junkies are pointing out ways in which Silver's model was wide of the mark.

Yet it's not clear that all readers and TV viewers are really clamoring for more precision. Nuanced, nerdy, math-based conclusions often make for dull copy -- not to mention boring television on election night, when self-styled analysts and strategists spend hours vamping on camera while waiting for results to trickle in. And some news consumers -- especially those tuning into conservative media as Obama consolidated a narrow lead in recent weeks -- don't want to hear about the true state of the race; they want to be reassured that their guy is winning. In this world, Barone's real role is to avoid sounding mealy-mouthed and to spin out plausible reasons why Romney would prevail handily.

To expose the gap between that kind of commentary and informed prediction -- as the stats geeks clearly have -- isn't to render Barone's kind of punditry obsolete. So here's a prediction: No matter how wrong their forecasts were this year, Barone and Noonan will keep on making new ones in the future.

Twitter: @danteramos

On abortion rights and immigration, voters send clear messages

November 6, 2012 10:50 PM

Whatever happens in the presidential race ­– which at this moment remains unsettled – it's clear that liberals have won major arguments in this campaign on abortion rights and immigration, two issues on which the Republican Party is largely beholden to its conservative base.

Republican senatorial candidates Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana refused to allow exceptions to their anti-abortion stances for women who were raped ­– and ended up losing races the national Republicans had long counted in the win column. Each did an astonishingly poor job explaining their abortion position, with Akin flunking basic biology in suggesting that women can never be impregnated by rape, and Mourdock declaring that such pregnancies were God's will. But the bottom line is that voters, even in historically red states, don't share their views.

In case there was any doubt that a no-exceptions opposition to abortion was politically dangerous, Mitt Romney insisted that his running mate, Paul Ryan, agree to support exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother, at least for the purposes of their joint campaign.


Medical marijuana passes, but many questions still unanswered

November 6, 2012 09:41 PM

Massachusetts voters have voted decisively to make medical marijuana legally available. Some voters undoubtedly embraced the initiative as a welcome step toward outright legalization of the drug. Others voted yes on Question 3 in sympathy with seriously ill people who find relief from pain and anxiety by smoking the drug.

But who is going to sympathize with Massachusetts if the ballot initiative turns out to be a fig leaf for rampant abuse as is the case in California and Colorado? Certainly not billionaire Peter Lewis, the former CEO of Progressive Corp. who provided nearly all of the money to push the ballot initiative across the finish line. Lewis thinks the nation's drug laws are ludicrous. But others look at the massive diversion of medical marijuana from shady dispensaries into the hands of teenagers and conclude that Lewis's cause is ludicrous.

It's pretty tough to use the words "marijuana" and "medical" in the same sentence when there is no information on proper dosage, usage, or even which conditions call for the use of pot. But that’s the door that Massachusetts voters have opened.

Non-binding ballot questions: Because three real questions weren't enough?

November 6, 2012 06:19 PM

The long lines at the polls in Massachusetts today weren't just because of a highly competitive Senate race, or because voters struggled to understand three somewhat complicated statewide ballot questions. Voters in many legislative districts across the state also confronted one or more of three non-binding ballot questions -- about the federal budget, about a possible constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, and about whether marijuana should be regulated like alcohol.

But are these ballot measures -- which, as the name "non-binding" suggests, have zero legal effect if they pass -- even worth holding up the line?

Direct democracy has its benefits. One can quibble with this year's statewide ballot questions, but the mere prospect of the first one, which would guarantee independent mechanics access to information needed to fix cars, pushed the Legislature to reach a compromise on the issue; the other two questions have stimulated an excellent public discussion on two issues -- medical marijuana and physician-assisted suicide -- that many legislators see no advantage in touching. I've never read a better exchange of letters than the deeply felt ones our readers sent us on either side of the "death with dignity" ballot questions.

These messages, however, contemplate actual changes to the law, and need a minimum of 68,911 signatures from voters to get on the ballot. But it's easy to get a non-binding question -- also known as a "public policy question" -- on the ballot in a given state Senate district, because you need just 1,200 signatures; for a House district, it's just 200. So some odd questions show up on ballots. In 2010, voters in a Pittsfield House district were asked whether the state's definition of nudity should be amended to exclude the female breast. The same year, voters in Boston and Cambridge district were asked whether they wanted to "delegate their powers concerning international affairs to a democratically elected legislative body of a global federal union of democratic nations." (Both measures failed.)


Long voting lines prove we need younger poll workers

November 6, 2012 03:18 PM

Everyone is gushing over the high turnout and civic-mindedness of citizens who are standing patiently in long lines to vote. But patience can wear thin when the senior vans from local assisted living centers pull up to polling places only to be met by retirees working the polls on election day. The whole process is redolent of grandma's recipe for slow-cooked Boston baked beans with molasses.

Sure some older folks need assistance when voting. And they should get it from spry high school students who are a lot quicker than elderly poll workers at checking in voters and handing out ballots. The priority for poll work positions should go to trustworthy high school students who could use the day off from school to earn $150 dollars and see history in the making. Face it. The kids would benefit a lot more from the money and the exercise in good citizenship than the retired crowd.

Did Sandy help President Obama?

November 5, 2012 06:37 PM

Hurricane Sandy hurt millions of Americans who still feel its pain. How much the super storm helped President Obama is a matter of debate.

Framing that political reality may be sensitive for the White House, but former President Bill Clinton seems to see it as win.

How Obama handled "that terrible storm" is a testament to his leadership and the philosophy that guides it, Clinton told a crowd of 14,000 on Sunday in Concord, NH. "Getting off the campaign trail, putting aside politics, working with the Republican governor of New Jersey, the independent mayor of New York City, and the Democratic governors of New York and Connecticut," said Clinton, in a joint appearance with Obama. "It was a stunning example of how 'we’re all in this together' is a way better philosophy than you're on your own.'"

Stumping in the Granite State, Obama also referenced Sandy, saying "what we've seen happen in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut just breaks our hearts."

"We will not stop" helping citizens of those states, he promised, "until their lives are rebuilt."

Still, some Democrats bridle at Republicans who translate a natural disaster into an excuse for a Romney loss. They were particularly irked after Republican strategist Karl Rove said in an interview that Hurricane Sandy stopped Mitt Romney's momentum.

ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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