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The Boston Globe

Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Brown needs to tackle the big issues

Scott Brown pitched the virtues of bold high-minded bipartisanship at Bunker Hill Community College on Wednesday, and his vision of how a senator should operate is certainly appealing.

He is always seeking common ground with his colleagues, Brown told the students. He refuses to demonize those who disagree with him and he scorns political point scoring. Instead, he’s determined to break through the gridlock and find bipartisan solutions that will better this country.

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Yet his speech raises two crucial questions.

Is it possible for a senator to succeed as an above-the-fray, independent-minded, consensus-seeking centrist in these politically polarized times? And has Brown lived up to the ideal he enunciated?

Partisan pressures in Washington are intense. That’s particularly true on the Republican side, where self-appointed potentates like Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and the Club for Growth enforce ideological conformity with an effectiveness labor unions can only envy. In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the Republican caucus have clogged the gears by using virtual filibusters to require 60 yes votes to accomplish anything of substance. The prospect of Tea Party primary challenges, meanwhile, has left incumbents glancing anxiously over their right shoulders.

Those pressures have brought John McCain, once a proud maverick, back into the conservative corral, and cowed occasional compromisers like Charles Grassley, Orrin Hatch, and Richard Lugar. The tense, unproductive atmosphere has led other senators to call it a career.

So when it comes to the crucial issues Washington must soon confront, one has to be an undaunted damn-the-torpedoes type to play the role Brown describes. Credit where it’s due: Brown was an important addition to the effort to end “don’t ask, don’t tell.” More recently, he helped secure passage of a law cracking down on insider trading by members of Congress.

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But so far, he hasn’t displayed the bigness or boldness required to tackle truly thorny, polarizing problems.

Exhibit A: On Wednesday, Brown rightly said saving this country from a debt crisis was among Washington’s most pressing problems. During his first Senate campaign, Brown said he favored a bipartisan fiscal commission to tackle the deficit. We’ve now had a number of such commissions, task forces, or gangs. Each has said entitlements must be reformed, but that the federal government also needs more revenue.

After Brown’s speech, I noted those recommendations and asked the senator if, along with entitlement reform, he would eventually support more revenue. Before considering any revenue increases, Brown said, “We need to fix the things like you read about: the fact that they [the General Services Administration] are spending $1 million of our tax money going to Vegas, the fact that we are spending hundreds of billions of dollars through fraud, waste, and abuse with Medicare. . . Then we need to look at entitlement reform, then we need to look at streamlining, consolidating, looking at the way we do procurement and military spending. Then we need to look at some of the loopholes, if there are some out there. . . but to just pit people against each other, us versus them, the haves and the have nots, it is not going to work.”

That’s a sidestep, not a step up. For starters, Brown’s estimate of Medicare fraud is little more than exaggerated guesswork. Although there aren’t reliable figures, fact-checkers who have looked at similar claims put possible Medicare fraud and abuse in the $50 billion-a-year range.

Any fraud should be cracked down on, of course, and the Obama administration is doing just that. But that’s only a piece of a long-term deficit solution. Similarly, citing $1 million in wasteful spending when the deficit is 1,000,000 times larger simply isn’t serious. Meanwhile, the notion that returning top rates to their 1990s levels pits people against each other is just a tired GOP talking point.

Now, in doing an election-year dodge, Brown is more the rule than the exception. So far, Democrat Elizabeth Warren has had little or nothing realistic to say about entitlement reform.

Yet when Brown sidesteps, he’s not just ducking on one of most important issues policymakers will face in the next few years. He’s also falling well short of the senatorial standard he has set for himself.

Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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