A blast from the past last week was a sentimental journey back to a time when the world made a certain amount of sense. Maine’s distinguished U.S. senator and secretary of defense in the Clinton administration, Bill Cohen, wrote a May 29 piece in the Washington Post about the controversy surrounding President Donald Trump.
Of the Republican position that the Mueller Report rendered a “case closed” verdict, Sen. Cohen said it was “not a tenable position.” Having worked to create the Office of Special Counsel during the Nixon administration, Cohen should know. Congress, said Cohen, “never intended to subcontract out its investigative powers to the executive branch.”
Sen. Cohen was ultimately one of six U.S. Senate Republicans who “concluded that Nixon clearly had engaged in obstruction of justice and abuse of power.” His judgment on the situation today: “The silence of Republicans today in the face of presidential behavior that is unacceptable by any reasonable standard is both striking and deeply disappointing.”
Cohen left the Senate in 1997 after 18 years of service, preceded by six years in the U.S. House. He opposed Trump’s candidacy in the 2016 presidential election. He was and remains a politician with his own beliefs, able to stick with them even when they went against the Republican grain.
How times have changed. Privately, Republicans might “express their disdain and even alarm at how [Trump] conducts the nation’s affairs,” yet are “reluctant to speak out publicly even in the face of behavior they would find intolerable by any previous occupant of the Oval Office.”
The climate in government has changed. No longer are political figures valued for their courage in asserting their beliefs. Straying from the party line is simply unacceptable, and elected officials pay for it at the ballot box. The parties see their jobs as winning at all costs, and no degree of independent thinking can be tolerated.
At least that’s the way it seems to work in Washington. In Augusta, there is still a little more latitude. Last session’s Senate president, Mike Thibodeau, did not hesitate to call out his Republican Governor Paul LePage for some of his behavior and language. House Speaker Sarah Gideon is described by some of her caucus members as letting debates play out within the caucus rather than ruling from the top.
State Sen. Peter Mills was one of the most notorious free agents under the dome, driving his caucus crazy with a combination of independent thinking and unsurpassed intelligence. Mills always knew more than anyone in the room about the history and consequences of proposed legislation. He could dismantle any party position not adequately supported by the facts and would do so on the floor of the Senate without hesitation, arms akimbo, glasses dangling perilously from a thumb and forefinger.
It is hard for one who has never served in a legislative body to understand the degree of pressure that can be brought to bear upon a wandering legislator and just how isolating that pressure can be, not to mention that your colleagues have the power to kill all your bills. Decades ago, state Sen. Ruth Foster lost her seat on the Appropriations Committee for agreeing to a budget compromise that prevented a state shutdown.
Speaking one’s mind in this highly charged political atmosphere is risky business, unless you value your principles more than your political future. Democrats were euphoric when they won the Blaine House in 2018. It was a bitter pill when newly minted Governor Janet Mills said her budget proposal would not contain new taxes.
Democrats were eager to restore or expand programs squashed under the previous administration, but they would need funding for those proposals. The Governor’s no-tax declaration may have dampened the post-inaugural enthusiasm, but it also sent a message to Republicans in office and Mainers everywhere that the fear of the spending dam breaking was on the mind of the new chief executive, too.
Now the Appropriations Committee is wrestling its way toward agreement on the first Mills budget, and signs are favorable. (Sorry if that jinxed you, ladies and gents.) The final version should come in a bit below that proposed by the Governor, and it does indeed avoid new taxes. State municipal revenue sharing has been given a little boost, more so than the Mills proposal, though it doesn’t get it back to the statutory level yet.
Dare we hope that Maine can once again claim its motto, Dirigo? That’s presuming we can agree that it means “I lead.” The parties have worked long and hard to produce a mutually agreeable budget, the state’s biggest policy document. They are on the verge of success. It came (mostly) without fireworks or grandstanding, and with a patient but firm Governor waiting to midwife a final agreement. Good job all around.