Sen. Margaret Chase Smith inspired my participation in politics during a 4-H trip to Washington, D.C., in 1969. For a kid from a small Maine town, meeting Smith was like meeting the president.
So it was particularly pleasing to be invited to participate in a “Maine Town Meeting” at the Margaret Chase Smith Library in Skowhegan last month, to serve on a panel exploring “the state and fate of the political center in American society.”
I started out by observing that there is no center in politics — just as there is no such thing as a “moderate,” the group that Eliot Cutler and One Maine hopes to find and organize.
What does “moderate” mean as a political philosophy? Without strong opinions? Unengaged in the political process? Turned off and tuned out? I’m struggling to figure out the constituency Cutler is looking for.
We all have opinions, mostly strongly held opinions. Instead of searching for the center, we should seek collaboration, cooperation and common ground in our political process, no matter what opinions are present. Respectful and honest dialogue, along with a bit of good will, would solve the problem. As Sen. Olympia Snowe observed, “We need civility, not hostility.”
No one is “independent,” either. Unenrolled voters follow the lead of the political party toward which they lean. They tend to be disinterested and disengaged. There is no group of independents out there just waiting to be organized into a voting block or political party.
Can you imagine waiting until the members of the organized political parties choose your candidates for you? That’s what independents did on June 12.
The conversation at the Maine Town Meeting centered on the ugly and discouraging partisanship that we suffer at all levels of politics and government. Everyone in the room agreed that this is the problem. I encouraged the audience to make their fight inside the two major political parties. Nothing else will straighten out this mess.
Although too many of my friends have unenrolled as Republicans, I’m not giving up. Linda claims I’m no longer a Republican, but my views have not changed. I am a Republican, but some of the people who also claim to be Republicans sure do think and behave differently from me.
I observed that many in the audience that day are members of key Maine interest groups, and I urged them to speak out when those groups engage in over-the-top rhetoric, demonizing their opponents. These groups know we are motivated by bad news to join, contribute and participate.
During my 18-year tenure as executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, I could never write a letter to raise money or activate the members that said everything was going well. It was much more effective to say Sen. So-and-So is pushing a very bad bill, and he’s got to be stopped. Send money so we can stop him!
Each of us should choose our interest groups wisely, and encourage them to more positive rhetoric and cooperative postures. I am appalled that some groups would rather lose than participate responsibly in the political process. Those who are certain they are right are always wrong.
I don’t really blame candidates for the ugly state of political campaigns today. Margaret Chase Smith refused to update her campaign techniques — sending back contributions from her supporters in her last campaign that she lost to Bill Hathaway. I learned an important lesson that year — you’ve got to use all available legal opportunities to win, or you are likely to lose, even if you are Margaret Chase Smith.
I closed my remarks that day with a story about our kids. Linda and I made a terrible mistake when we raised our children: We encouraged them to think for themselves, and they all became Democrats. Everyone laughed, agreeing with me that a key missing ingredient in politics and government today is laughter.
As the end of the panel discussion neared, we were asked if anything happening in today’s political world encourages us. I said I am inspired and hopeful that the U.S. Senate campaign of independent candidate Angus King will elevate the level of civil discourse. And, if he should win, I believe his victory would deliver a strong message all across this country that we are sick and tired of the ugliness, the petty partisanship and the gridlock.
Perhaps then we can all crowd into the center and fix the problems of this state and nation.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.