In political wars, Maine, U.S. images suffer

Appearances matter. But recently the images projected by the Maine and U.S. governments have contributed to a loss of the positive reputation Mainers and all Americans consider their birthright.

Maine has a reputation of being populated by hard-working people with their own sense of humor and a serious, if not dour, demeanor. Mainers are often considered calm and solid with a strong sense of community.

The state’s politics have been conducted in a civil and respectful manner, even when there were sharp differences between the parties.

Take the election of Edmund Muskie as governor in 1954. He was the first Democrat to be elected governor in decades, and he faced an overwhelmingly Republican Legislature. Yet Maine government was able to produce results with minimal acrimony to the point that both Muskie and GOP legislators were sent back to Augusta after the next election.

These days, Gov. Paul LePage is not getting along nearly that well with the Democrats, who control the House, or with many Republicans, who control the Senate.

After winning only 39 percent of the vote in his first run for governor, he sought to prove his popularity. His opposition, once again split, allowed him to boost his vote nearly to a majority.

His re-election proved his first victory was no fluke. But LePage seems to believe that it meant Mainers were giving him a blank check to run state government, and legislators ought to fall in line.

He charged, “the Democrats are going to disenfranchise the Maine people,” meaning the other party would not roll over for him in light of his electoral victory. He would retaliate he warned, by vetoing any bill “with a Democrat sponsor.”

LePage had made the bold proposal to abolish the state income tax, but this keystone of his legislative package ran into opposition from both Republicans and Democrats. With three more years in his term, he might have chosen to negotiate on measures moving in his direction and pressed for more later.

Instead of using the political process and the urge to compromise, LePage went to war. Beyond making good on his veto threat, he heatedly labeled his opponents as “bums.”

If you are a LePage supporter, you might have hoped he would advance his program as far as he could instead of slamming the door on any possible cooperation, creating a crisis.

Under LePage, the slogan has been “Maine is open for business.” Almost everybody recognizes the need for attracting new business and new jobs, but corporate chiefs look for consistent and rational government before they invest.

A state government in turmoil cannot present that desired appearance. In waging his political battles, LePage apparently ignores their effect on business development and acts with indifference, as he did when he chased Statoil, one of the world’s largest companies, out of the state.

The political conflict that has come to Maine already exists in Washington. In an interview earlier this year, former U.S. Sen. Bill Cohen, a Maine Republican, said that the “dysfunctional system” there had become “an embarrassment to me as I travel around the world.”

The world’s greatest power, supposedly a model of open, democratic government is almost paralyzed by its inability to find compromises that gain enough support to produce results. That comes across as an abandonment of a leadership role that many want it to play.

“Compromise is a word you can’t use any longer,” Cohen said. Without the willingness on either the extreme right or the extreme left to make concessions, there can be no compromise. And without compromise in a country this size, decisions become impossible.

In the same interview, former Sen. George Mitchell, a Democrat, found we want competition between the parties, but we also want them to reach compromises. The difficulty, he said, is in striking a balance. But you cannot do that if you don’t try. Or, as in LePage’s case, if the prime dealmaker prefers conflict.

Congress did manage to find a compromise on the USA Freedom Act, which allowed continued N.S.A. searches through telephone data, but added a requirement for court supervision. An overwhelming majority was achieved in both the House and Senate after members of both parties, concerned about personal rights, moved away from insistence on secret, broad-scale government surveillance.

Both Maine House members, one Democrat and one Republican, and independent Sen. King voted for the compromise. But GOP Sen. Collins stuck with her party and strongly opposed added protection from government data sweeps. Though an advocate of compromise, she missed her big chance.

Gordon L. Weil

About Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil is a former local, state, national and international organization official. He is an author and newspaper columnist.