Saturday, May 24, 2014

Why did a crypto-Democrat endorse a GOP Senator?

In a politically unusual move, independent Sen. Angus King, who almost always lines up with the Democrats, endorsed Republican Sen. Susan Collins for re-election.

President George W. Bush labeled forecasting the political future based on today’s events as “punditry,” and King’s move was just the kind of tidbit pundits like.

While I make no claim to being a pundit, the endorsement stimulates some tantalizing speculation about Maine politics this year.  Not only is King-Collins worth a closer look, but so are other Maine campaigns.  But it’s little more than guesswork at this stage.

King endorsed Collins, providing her support she had not sought or almost certainly did not need.  He told Democratic candidate Shenna Bellows his endorsement was not “personal.”   Maybe not for Bellows, but quite personal for King.

An explanatory note for what follows.  The U.S. Senate is controlled by the majority party. The party “organizing” the Senate gets to name committee chairs and determine the flow of Senate business.

Right now, the Democrats control.  The sole GOP legislative power is to filibuster to prevent matters from coming to a vote.  And even that power has been cut, making it difficult to block most presidential nominations.

Independent King now backs Democratic control.  But the pundits say the GOP could well organize the Senate next year.  Does King’s endorsement mean he will change sides to keep prime committee slots?

He says that he will do what’s best for Maine.  Could anything be better to benefit his state than his keeping prime committee positions?

If the Democrats keep control, they may be less favorable to him simply because he endorsed a GOP senator.  No matter how much he tries to straddle the gap by pushing his independent status, he may find there’s a price to pay for such a strategy.

Collins looks sure to be re-elected.  Does the King endorsement hurt Bellows?

Like many endorsements, it may not matter much except to the person making the endorsement.  Already the underdog, one might wonder if Bellows is even discouraged.   

Why is she running in such a difficult race?

If she already recognizes how difficult it would be to win, perhaps gaining recognition and respectability will help her in another race for another office later on.  That’s what Collins did when she finished third in the governor’s race.

Is there anything Bellows can do this time around?  Instead of trying to defeat Collins on the issues, maybe she should find a single issue, keep hammering it, and become identified with it. 

The key issue could be that Collins, considered a moderate, helps give Senate control to the GOP and supports most filibusters, thus empowering fellow Republicans far more conservative than she is.

As for King’s endorsements, he’s not finished yet.  He seems likely to endorse Eliot Cutler, candidate for governor and like him an independent leaning toward the Democrats.

Cutler thought about running as an independent for the Senate seat King eventually won.  Instead, he endorsed King, who probably gained access to Cutler’s supporters list.  Repaying the favor, King would endorse Cutler and return to him an updated list.

Looking at the governor’s race itself, we are continually reminded that Paul LePage won only because the opposition vote was split between Cutler and the Democrat.  Supporters of either of them have almost certainly learned their lesson.

That means the anti-LePage voters will recall 2010 and begin to rally around either Democrat Mike Michaud or Cutler.  Once the flow starts toward one of them, it should keep on going. 

Which way?  Who knows, but having won repeatedly in the Second Congressional District, Michaud has political money in the bank.  Cutler will presumably press hard to win big in the seemingly more liberal First District.

The Second District race, to fill the seat left vacant by Michaud, has primary contests in both parties.  The candidates in each party probably wouldn’t differ much from one another if they got to the House of Representatives.

But in the GOP, candidate Bruce Poliquin is trying hard to show he is more conservative than Kevin Raye.  In the Democratic race, candidate Emily Cain is trying hard to show she is more liberal than Troy Jackson.

The outcome of those primaries and the ensuing general election may end up telling Mainers a lot about the political complexion of their state. 

One thing worth noting.  It’s at least theoretically possible that, when the electoral dust settles, women could hold three of Maine’s four federal offices.
Remember, though, this is all just guesswork, not punditry.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

"Bigger is Better" not true in government, world affairs

Chances are you have seen an AT&T commercial on television in which a man gives a group of young kids a simple choice and concludes, “Bigger is better.  It’s not complicated.”

It’s as if everybody knows that bigger is better, which the man illustrates with swimming pools and cell phone networks.

Is there something to the message he seeks from the kids?

A recent Gallup survey in each state asked people if their state was one of the best states to live in.  The top-rated state by its inhabitants was Alaska.  The worst state was Rhode Island.  Maybe bigger is better.  Or maybe lower taxes were a factor.

Maine, “the way life should be” state, finished fifteenth, topped by both New Hampshire and Vermont in New England.

But whether bigger is better is a good deal more complicated than the television ad would have us believe.  

Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun talking about “New Russia,” which has its historical roots in an area far larger than the current Russia.  It would include the Ukraine, possibly Belarus and maybe even Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. 

Putin and many Russians have not recovered from the loss of their country’s world influence when the Soviet Union was broken up, and they would like to restore its standing by creating a new and bigger Russia.

Bigger may be better for the Russians, but it obviously worries their neighbors.  The way Russia took over Ukraine’s Crimean territory reveals how it might create a bigger, “New Russia.”

Americans, who generally like bigness, are beginning to worry about the rise of Russia as a new complicating factor in world affairs thanks to Putin’s version of “bigger is better.”

Then, there’s China.  With a population of almost 1.4 billion people, it is the biggest country in the world.  The United States is third, after India.

At the end of this decade, China is expected to have the largest economy in the world.  Americans, used to having the Number One economy for almost 100 years, may have trouble no longer being the biggest.

On a per person basis, the United States will continue to have higher wealth than China for quite a while.   And it should be pleased to be passed by China.

As countries become more prosperous, they seek to gain influence more often by economic means than by force.  The United States can compete well on an economic playing field, and almost everybody would prefer such competition to military conflict.  Bigger won’t necessarily make China better than the U.S., only better than China used to be.

And, of course, there’s the perennial debate about the American government.  Is a bigger federal government better?  That question is at the center of American politics now, just as it has been since the Constitution was written.

To some extent, government grows as the population grows.  When the government provides services or monitors those it funds or regulates, it needs the personnel and equipment to cover more operations and deal with more people.

But congressional Republicans argue the federal government is involved in too many programs and has grown too large.  They want to cut the size government and use the money saved to reduce either the federal debt or income taxes.

Much of the struggle with Democrats is over which programs to cut and by how much.  The bipartisan agreement on agriculture policy, cutting funding for both farm subsidies and food stamps, was a rare example of how the two sides can work out a compromise reducing the size of government.

The obstacle to reductions frequently boils down to people wanting government programs to be cut, but not the ones from which they benefit.

The two major target areas for reducing the federal budget are the cost of entitlements, especially Medicare, and military spending.  Savings in most other areas would be more symbolic than effective.

Medicare may look like a blank check to pay for ever-increasing costs.  The solution would have to be some kind of cost control, which competition alone cannot sufficiently provide.  But Congress has been unable to come close to agreeing on controlling health care cost increases.

As for the armed forces, according to some studies, the United States now spends more than the next nine countries combined.  Congress sometimes gives the military more than it requests or needs, because it creates jobs, though it blocks direct, job-creation programs.

When it comes to the federal government, many would agree, “Bigger is not better.”  How to get to “smaller” is the challenge.   

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Candidate offers voters an unusual deal

In the 1972 presidential election, President Richard Nixon drubbed Sen. George McGovern, but the ensuing Watergate scandal cast the Nixon campaign in the worst possible light.

A post-election national survey asked voters which candidate they had supported.  In several states McGovern had lost, the poll found a majority saying they had voted for him.  In fact, he would have made it a close race, if what they said was true.

A book entitled “How McGovern Won the Presidency” was published.  An obvious work of fiction, it suggested everybody knew he would lose, so he had done something bold enough to change the result.

He told voters he understood, just as they did, that he was going to lose to the incumbent president.  He asked them to vote for him, reducing Nixon’s margin and sending the president, who supported the Vietnam War, a message denying him their vote of confidence.

In this story, McGovern’s request to the voters had brought the impossible result.  McGovern won. 

Of course, that is a political fairy tale, and McGovern never made the proposal.  But it makes the point candidates should talk honestly and realistically with voters, recognizing they should make political deals with voters instead of with financial backers, political leaders or other candidates.  Then, surprising things can happen.

In fact, candidates almost never make deals with voters, other than to pander to them by making promises they won’t or can’t keep.

The “almost never” is in that sentence, because it just happened here in Maine.

First, here’s the setting for the proposed deal.  In the 2010 governor’s election, 61 percent of the voters supported one of two candidates running against Republican Paul LePage who won, having received more votes than either of his competitors.

Second-place finisher independent Eliot Cutler split the rest of the vote with Democrat Libby Mitchell.  Newspaper polling reports had shown that either of them had a chance of defeating LePage.

Voters who thought either Mitchell or Cutler would be preferable to LePage were left in a quandary about who to support.  The published polling was misleading, causing many voters to wait until the last minute to decide.  Finally, the votes began flowing to Cutler.

But the shift came too late for him, and he lost by a narrow margin with the Democrat far behind.  You can understand how Cutler must have felt and why he was anxious for another shot at being governor.

The Maine electorate remains split.  Governor LePage has his strong support, likely from about the same share of the voters as gave him the Blaine House last time.  Whether they support Democrat Mike Michaud or Eliot Cutler, the rest of the voters probably agree in opposing another term for LePage.

So Cutler, now trailing Michaud in the polls, is asked about the risk of a 2010 election repeat, giving LePage four more years.

He notes the Legislature has declined to change the election procedure to prevent Maine having a minority governor.  He reports he and Michaud have not made a deal.  Such deals among candidates don’t happen, he says, because the two will later end up disagreeing about its terms.

But Cutler says he will make a deal with the voters.  Here’s what he proposes.
Cutler says people who think he would make the best governor of the three candidates ought to go all out in campaigning for him.  In this difficult race, nothing less than truly active campaigning can make him the winner.  He will stay in the race until the end in the hope his supporters and his platform can get him elected.

The second part of his proposed deal is what is almost historic.  He says when his supporters vote, if they think he cannot win, they should vote for another candidate.   

Many politicians might think this deal amounts to political suicide.  Is Cutler conceding in advance?

In reality, Cutler is showing more trust in the wisdom of voters than do most candidates.  He is dealing upfront with the greatest concern people have about his candidacy.  He wants to win, of course, but he asks his supporters not to turn him into a mere spoiler.

He has shifted the burden to the voters, where it belongs, and to Michaud, who now should offer his supporters the same deal. 

In my columns, I do not endorse candidates, so this is not an endorsement of Cutler.  But it is admiration for a rare moment in American campaigns when a candidate takes a big political risk to offer an honest deal to voters.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Israel, Palestinians Ignore Mitchell’s Advice

After former Sen. George Mitchell ended his role as Middle East mediator, he told a Maine audience the failure of Israel and the Palestinians to sign a peace agreement was yielding increasingly negative prospects for both of them.

The Palestinians were losing territory, he said, and Israel was losing friends.

In 1947, the United Nations had proposed to divide Palestine between Israel and the Palestinians.  The partition would have had the divided territory of both new countries meet at a single point on the map.  Neither would have to cross over the territory of the other.

The founders of Israel accepted the proposal, but the Palestinians and surrounding Arab countries rejected it, believing they could take over all of Palestine by military force.

A few months later, Israel, supported by the United States, the Soviet Union and others, won the war.  Its territory was larger than the U.N. had proposed.

Some Palestinians could not accept the existence of Israel and resorted to terrorist acts in hopes of wiping it off the map.  As their acts became extreme, Israel responded with increasing force.

Successive Arab attacks on Israel led to successive setbacks.  More territory came under Israeli control.  It began building settlements in territory it had gained so that, even if a Palestinian state came into existence, Israel would be able to dominate it.

If the failure of some Palestinians to accept Israel caused their territory to shrink, Israel found that its settlements policy, punishing the Palestinians and making it more difficult for them to accept an imposed peace, began reducing its support in world opinion. 

The only reliable friend of Israel turned out to be the United States.  But even American policy questioned the continued creation of settlements in the territory of the would-be Palestine.

Mitchell’s analysis and forecast turned out to be the most succinct and accurate view of the Middle East situation.  By leaving his role as mediator in 2011, he seemed to say that the situation had no chance of improving in the reasonably near future.

Not only did the settlements complicate the outlook, but so does a divided Palestine.  In the land between Israel and Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party, control.  In Gaza, a separate area along the Mediterranean near Egypt, the terrorist Hamas Party is in charge.

In Israel, Arab terrorist attacks have abated, thanks partly to Abbas.  Prosperity has grown and people have increasingly focused on their own lives and less on making a deal with the Palestinians.  The prospects for peace have become more remote, and settlement building continues.

Recently, Hamas has lost support from war-torn Syria.  And the Egyptian military government has cut off many of its sources of supply. 

Last week, Fatah and Hamas announced they would form a unified government and then hold elections.  Abbas issued a statement strongly condemning the Holocaust, which had cost the lives of six million Jews and had stimulated the creation of Israel.

Both events seemed like possible good news.  Both were rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  The United States stepped back in its efforts to promote a peace agreement.

Have the Palestinians reached the conclusion that continued hostility toward one another only causes them literally to lose ground?  If they succeed within the next few weeks to create a unified government, they can change the negotiating equation.

Netanyahu is undoubtedly correct that you cannot negotiate with someone whose objective is your disappearance.  But, if Hamas, as part of a unified Palestinian government, accepted the existence of Israel, he could claim a degree of victory.  If he would then continue to reject dealing with the Palestinian Authority, Israel could face even more isolation.

With problems in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq pressing, the American focus on Israel and the Palestinians may be receding.  Political candidates may keep up their strong support of Israel, but the practical effect may be less.

Of course, a mere willingness to negotiate, should that happen, does not ensure success.  Terrorism from Palestinian territories must be controlled, while Palestine should gain all the attributes of a sovereign country.  Israeli long-term security, its settlements, and the status of Jerusalem would have to be decided.

Both sides would do well to accept Mitchell’s wise advice, which until now they have resisted.

Why should Americans care?  We spend billions each year to support Israel, the Palestinians, and Egypt.  Aside from sharing the universal desire for peace, we have a right to expect honest efforts to end Middle East conflict in return for our investment.