VOTER ANGER takes many forms. Many people have residual disgust over the financial meltdown, the effects of which weren’t really known until after the last national canvass, in 2008. Those who thought they voted for change in 2008 feel thwarted by Senate filibusters. Many others, devastated by lost jobs or lower wages, feel that the people in charge of government should be made to feel their pain.
In purely political terms, these are expected feelings. Both parties are playing to them. Suddenly, everyone’s an outsider, pointing fingers. It is easy to believe that what actually happened in Washington over the past two years was so disreputable that no one should embrace it.
But rarely has the political equation and the policy reality diverged so sharply. The three initiatives most commonly under attack — the bank bailout, the federal stimulus plan, and the health reform act — are in no way responsible for the economic woes that are burdening today’s voters.
Without the TARP program, millions more Americans would have lost their homes. The suspension of business loans due to bank failures and uncertainty about future credit would have rattled major employers. Widespread layoffs would have ensued. Instead, much of the damage was averted with a bailout that looked enormous on the surface — $700 billion — but ended up being almost entirely repaid, with above-market interest. Despite the legitimate desire for more punitive action against the banking industry, rarely has so much good been achieved for so little cost.
In any severe recession, some form of stimulus is necessary. Conservatives opt for tax cuts. Liberals prefer government job creation. The $787 billion package approved in 2009 was more than a third tax cuts, including one that put up to $800 per couple directly into the pockets of average Americans. The bill pumped desperately needed cash into state and local coffers to prevent layoffs — the quickest possible way to reduce unemployment. There were also major expenditures on infrastructure and alternative energy, long-term priorities that were widely discussed in the 2008 campaign and endorsed by voters.
While reasonable people can debate the wisdom of adding longer-term items to an “emergency’’ bill — a source of genuine frustration to Republican opponents — both the need for spending and the worthiness of the expenditures shouldn’t be in dispute. Almost alone among spending bills, the stimulus package included no congressional earmarks.
The health reform bill, meanwhile, closed an obvious, gaping hole in the health system — the lack of insurance for 38 million people — and provided funds to explore the most promising ways of reducing costs by computerizing medical records and, for the first time, determining the most effective cures in order to eliminate unnecessary treatment. Policy makers can disagree about whether the bill was adequate to the task at hand, but reasonable people should give it a chance to work. Whatever one’s frustration about health care — high costs, inadequate coverage — this bill is not the cause but rather a concerted attempt to provide a solution.
There are no easy scapegoats here. As comforting as it might be to side with the candidates who blame the outgoing Congress for the nation’s economic problems — the spending, the borrowing — the reality is starkly different. The federal deficit did not cause the crisis. And the stimulus bill, in offering a one-time shot of adrenaline, does not much alter the long-term deficit.
The fact is, the economy was faltering before this Congress entered office, and its actions have stopped the decline. This is not a time to declare everyone in Washington to be bums and throw them out, as much as challengers may try to feed that sentiment for their own advantage.
This is not to say that any change would be harmful. One positive development brought about by the troubled economy is a new burst of competition for seats in the US House. It has helped revitalize the Massachusetts Republican Party — a good sign for the long-term health of the state — and driven incumbents to connect more closely with their constituents. Behind all the infuriating attack ads, mostly by outside groups, has been a spirited battle for grass-roots support between a group of mostly promising Republican newcomers and a mostly dedicated team of Democratic incumbents.
In some districts, the choice is clear. In others, voters have the luxury of two good options. In still others, neither of the choices is all that appealing. But while voters should take their own measures of the challengers, there is no overriding reason to remove the incumbents, most of whom have earned the loyalty of their constituents.
Not all seats are seriously contested. Michael Capuano, representing parts of Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, is unopposed. Ed Markey of Malden, the longest-serving Massachusetts representative, faces a longshot challenge from Gerry Dembrowski, a Woburn chiropractor. Stephen Lynch, representing parts of Boston and its suburbs, withstood a primary challenge from the left by touting his independence from Democratic leaders; now, his lightly funded GOP opponent, computer technologist Vernon Harrison, is arguing, improbably, that Lynch is too liberal for the district. Lynch is a much better fit than Harrison.
The Fifth District, covering the former mill cities of Lowell, Lawrence, Haverhill, and surrounding towns, has been represented for three years by Niki Tsongas, widow of the late Senator Paul Tsongas. Her first win, in a relatively close special election, was greatly aided by her last name. This time she’s earned it on her own. At 64, Tsongas isn’t gunning for a leadership position; she’s looking to make her mark at the street level, by helping Haverhill and Lawrence to develop the kind of public-private commitment to improvement that has buoyed Lowell. A former dean of external affairs at Middlesex Community College, Tsongas is equally focused on job training and higher education.
Tsongas is opposed by Jon Golnik, who until recently owned an import furniture store in Boston’s South End and wants to focus on small-business owners like himself. Likable and articulate, Golnik nonetheless lacks Tsongas’ deep ties to the district. A nine-year resident of the upscale suburb of Carlisle, Golnik has no record of public service and apologizes for failing to register to vote between 2001 and 2009. Tsongas is clearly the superior choice.
The choice is less clear in the next-door Sixth District, where 14-year incumbent Democrat John Tierney of Salem is trying to explain his wife’s admission that she oversaw a bank account fed by her brother’s alleged illegal-gambling operation. She said she had “willful denial’’ about the source of the money, and Tierney says he knew only that she was using the account to buy things for her brother’s children while he worked on the Caribbean island of Antigua.
But the brother had a history of illegal gambling, and the size of the account — more than $7 million flowed through it — should have raised flags for someone. It’s reasonable to wonder if Tierney, too, was in willful denial.
He offers no apologies. His only regret is that his own reputation was “collateral damage’’ in the case. After seven terms, Tierney carries an air of entitlement that’s not fully justified by his record. He has provided decent constituent services and played an admirable role in overhauling the federal student-loan system. But he hasn’t emerged as a particularly noteworthy or significant figure.
A decent challenger could capitalize on his vulnerability on the moderately conservative North Shore. Unfortunately, the Republican nominee is the weakest of the political newcomers on the GOP roster, an intemperate attorney from Boxford named Bill Hudak. He says he’s offended by the incivility of those in power, but once decorated his lawn with an outrageous picture of President Obama dressed as Osama bin Laden. He also plastered his vehicle with bumper stickers ridiculing Obama. His expressions of regret are as perfunctory as Tierney’s, and his air of certitude is, if anything, greater. Hudak is a potential embarrassment. Voters in the Sixth District would be best off reelecting Tierney and then watching his performance closely with an eye toward 2012.
The choice is entirely a positive one for voters in the Worcester area, home to the gifted and productive Representative James McGovern, a staunch liberal in a relatively moderate district. For those who don’t share McGovern’s views, Republican nominee Marty Lamb, a real estate lawyer, is a good option. Of all the citizen-politicians who emerged after the economic collapse, Lamb shows the most potential: He supports a slate of targeted tax breaks intended to help small businesses, and favors extending the Bush tax cuts for all. But he maintains that, if elected, he won’t vote in lockstep with his party’s leaders. He manages to be both a forceful critic and a voice of reason.
Lamb smartly acknowledges that McGovern is a “good constituent-service congressman.’’ Indeed, McGovern’s record of service to the district is unusually noteworthy: Worcester, in particular, is finally taking steps to break out of a disastrous 1970s renewal plan, thanks partly to McGovern’s exertions. As the second-ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee to 81-year-old Louise Slaughter, McGovern, at 50, is on the verge of achieving the kind of power wielded by his mentor, Joe Moakley. Every House bill is vetted by the Rules Committee, giving its chairman enormous clout. There is no doubt that McGovern would use that power to help revitalize Central Massachusetts.
Conservatives and others looking for a complete change can feel good about supporting Lamb, but there is no good reason to abandon McGovern now. He can and will do more for the district.
At this moment, McGovern’s clout is less than that of Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. While his panel doesn’t have the broad purview of Rules Committee, Frank puts his leverage to work for local causes like the fishing industry in New Bedford, which is perpetually under the scrutiny of federal regulators and needs a powerful advocate.
Assessing Frank’s performance has always been tough, because his fingers are in so many legislative pies. He acknowledges having been slow, like other officials, to see the extent of the home-mortgage crisis that engulfed the economy. For that, he deserves blame. But the larger charge that he pushed to give federally backed mortgages to less-qualified borrowers isn’t all that it seems: The Bush administration, not Frank, was focused on raising the number of buyers in its “ownership society’’; Frank wielded his clout more on behalf of rental subsidies, arguing that not everyone is qualified to own a home.
On the other side of the ledger, Frank was instrumental in helping write TARP and the Frank-Dodd bill to toughen bank regulation. It is not true, as his challenger Sean Bielat says in his ads, that “No individual is MORE responsible than Barney Frank for the housing crisis and economic collapse.’’ Frank deserves some blame, but also some credit.
Bielat, 35, is an intriguing contrast to the 70-year-old Frank. A major in the Marine Corps Reserve, with a Wharton degree and experience at the consulting firm of McKinsey & Co., he can almost go toe to toe with Frank on financial matters. Behind his boyish grin is an ego the size of Frank’s: They’re a fascinating pair of opposites. Bielat favors tax and budget cuts directed mainly away from the military; Frank hopes to spend his next term tackling military waste.
On social issues, Frank is a leader in the move to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell’’ policy, while Bielat insists that the military does not discriminate on the basis of sexuality. On abortion, Bielat acknowledges that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, but is almost unique among politicians in refusing to offer his own view of abortion rights. That refusal signals the strategic nature of Bielat’s candidacy — he’s a smart bomb directed at Frank, zeroing in on the economy while neutralizing Frank’s advantage on social issues. With his broad skills, Bielat can be a leader in the state GOP. But leadership requires more than just strategic intelligence.
Frank deserves the tough questioning he’s received from Bielat; but he also deserves reelection.
In the only open seat, to replace the retiring Bill Delahunt, Norfolk County District Attorney William Keating faces state Representative Jeffrey Perry of Sandwich. The 10th District, covering the South Shore and Cape Cod, is moderately conservative. Both candidates have law-enforcement backgrounds, and promise to focus on small businesses — a no-brainer on the tourist-economy Cape. Democrat Keating, a former legislator with a liberal record, would be the favorite in most years; Republican Perry, a committed conservative, might be expected to be the favorite this year.
But Perry has been dogged by his role, as a Wareham police sergeant, in allegedly covering up for a colleague who strip-searched two teenaged girls in separate incidents. A civil suit raised a further revelation that Perry’s commander considered him untruthful; and a former intern to Perry’s chief of staff was recently questioned for stalking Keating’s daughter. The questions about Perry are too significant to ignore: Keating, with his long record of service, is the better choice.