Friday, February 24, 2017

The difficulty of being Susan Collins -- alone in the middle

Sen. Susan Collins is considered a moderate Republican. That can make life difficult.
First, the “moderate” part. She comes from a Maine Republican tradition that, while supporting the business community, also has focused on good but limited government. Often in the past, Maine Republicans were associated with environmental protection.
A moderate Republican has become a rarity. Since 1995, when the party in Congress adopted strict discipline and conservatives came to dominate, any Republican who votes independently of the party line may find herself under attack.
Jane Mayer’s recent book, Dark Money, relates how billionaire party backers were given the choice between funding a diverse GOP congressional delegation or only hard-right Republicans. They followed the trend and turned right.
As a result, Collins may be subjected to scorching criticism and called a RINO, a Republican in name only. Her party loyalty is challenged because of her unwillingness to stop thinking for herself and simply vote in line with party leaders.
And there may be a price to pay. When Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell hands out good committee assignments and other political plums, Collins runs the risk of being at the end of the line.
Last week, she was the only Republican to vote against President Trump’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency. A writer once opined that the environment is to Maine as oil is to Texas, so McConnell had to look the other way. Similarly, two coal- and gas-state Democrats voted for the nominee.
Collins did not support candidate Trump, has opposed a couple of his cabinet nominees and, in 1999, voted against convicting Bill Clinton after he was impeached. But some Democrats believe Collins is not moderate enough.
These critics believe she should be more independent of her party and vote more in line with the Democrats, simply because she sometimes agrees with them. If she fails to align more closely with them, they charge her with not truly being a moderate.
A moderate means you are in the middle, but the middle is proving to be a lonely place, open to heated attacks from either side.
What her critics overlook is the second part of her political label – Republican. Susan Collins and her politically active family were Republicans long before the birth of some of those who now attack her supposed lack of orthodoxy, labeling her a RINO.
Collins says being a Republican is part of her identity. The American tradition has been to allow people to define themselves and that is certainly the case for political affiliation. The first thing Collins or anybody else needs to do is to be true to themselves.
She may be trying to help her party survive a narrow and exclusionary self-definition that could result in its ending up as a permanent minority as the U.S. population becomes more urban and diverse. When Republicans attack or exclude her, they may be narrowing their window to the future.
Democrats need to avoid falling into the same camp as the GOP tea party conservatives by insisting on strict adherence to a single set of policies. Their tradition has been to be open to diversity. Still, they cannot reasonably expect a Republican like Collins to align with them.
Instead, they should value her attempts at moderation and see if it is possible to create and expand the bipartisan middle ground that is essential to sound public policy and a stable political system. That requires making some concessions.
This column does not endorse politicians, and this is not an endorsement of Collins. It is meant to highlight the real choice voters face when they vote for her or other candidates for the U.S. Senate or House.
That choice can mean a candidate’s party matters more than his or her positions on the issues. The most important vote a member of Congress makes is to select the party running the show and, for her, it is the GOP. Collins is not a deep conservative, but she enables a party dominated by deep conservatives.
Instead of supporting candidates on policy positions, maybe we ought to support them on their commitment to preserving our system against the demands of rigid or even dangerous ideology.
Legitimately, she might say that she provides a path to compromise. Sticking with a party that may scorn her as a moderate is challenging, and it’s what makes Collins’ political existence difficult.
The problem for a thoughtful legislator like Collins is finding the balance between strict party loyalty and good government. It’s also a problem for voters.

Friday, February 17, 2017

George Washington's warning recalled as we mark his birthday

On Monday, we will celebrate Washington's Birthday.
Not Presidents’ Day. Washington's Birthday is the official U.S. and Maine government designation of the day. To remember other presidents, some outright failures, the day honoring Washington has become a commercial holiday.
But we should remember this country’s good fortune to have been led by this exceptional man. Annually, I write in recognition of Washington.
Washington was an even better statesman than military leader. His strengths were his unwavering commitment to the idea of the United States and to civilian control of the military.
During the Revolutionary War, Washington had the heavy responsibility of unifying the United States. He was the only truly national figure during the war, dependent on voluntary state financial and military contributions that made him a supporter of a strong national government.
When he assumed the presidency, he understood that almost everything he did would set a precedent for history. Each step – from the creation of a functioning executive branch to his relationship with Congress – required careful thought and preparation and showed deep respect for the popular will.
But there was strong opposition from those who worried that the national government would override states’ rights and individual freedoms. Washington accepted the Bill of Rights as an essential part of the deal to make a new country.
A new book by journalist John Avlon examines Washington’s Farewell Address to the country at the end of his presidency. In it, he warned of today’s partisan political problems.
Washington worried about the growth of political parties that he witnessed. He predicted “the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension ....” He concluded that strong partisanship could undermine the functioning of government.
Avlon calls Washington America’s only independent president, who tried to draw on all views presented to him. Even when he was attacked, he advocated moderation and compromise.
Thomas Jefferson bitterly opposed him on dealing with the rest of the world. The president subscribed to a view later formulated by a British statesman: "Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests."
For Washington, it made sense to sign a treaty with England rather than France, America's wartime ally, then undergoing a bloody revolution. Jefferson and his allies disagreed, later launching the disastrous War of 1812 against the British.
His disappointment at the development of political parties reached the point that he finally split completely with Jefferson, who had formed an opposition party, based mainly in the agrarian South.
Washington, a southern slave owner, agonized over slavery. He recognized that the two parts of the country had deep differences about its future, and the country might break apart. If it did, a friend reported in 1795, "he had made up his mind to remove and be of the northern."
He believed that slavery would disappear as the nation's economy developed, though he was overly optimistic about its end. He recognized that the future lay in the development of "manufactures" produced by wage labor, as was beginning to happen in the North.
Thus, 70 years before Lincoln's defense of the Union in the Civil War and his willingness to compromise on slavery, Washington used his national standing to hold the country together. His will freed his slaves after his death, and, against Virginia law, he left money for their education.
Washington had a deep religious belief. While some other Founding Fathers were deists, believing that God's role was limited to creating the universe, Washington was a practicing Christian who often prayed.
Yet he did not believe that the United States was a Christian nation, writing, "All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship." He opposed religious "toleration," saying the term implied that "it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights."
Though lacking evidence, some thought he wanted to create something like a hereditary monarchy in the United States. Washington might easily have taken more power, but he carefully avoided making his position regal and always worked closely with Congress.
He resigned as general and declined to serve more than two terms as president. When Britain’s King George III, America’s old enemy, was told that Washington would walk away from high office, he said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Washington has become a symbolic figure, causing us to lose sight of him as a real person. He was a general, a president, a statesman and, above all, a great man. We should remember that man.

Friday, February 10, 2017

What goes around comes around

The opponents of political conservatism are adopting a strategy from an unusual source – conservatives.
The decision of a federal district court judge in Washington State to suspend President Trump’s immigration moves is a clear example of that strategy.
Trump had imposed a ban or “extreme vetting” on refugees from some countries, relying on what he claimed were broad presidential powers over immigration. The Washington attorney general questioned those powers and went to the federal district court in Seattle to get Trump’s actions halted.
Giving itself the time to consider the Washington case without yet deciding on its merits, the court ordered a temporary halt to the new policy. Perhaps surprisingly, the judge ruled his decision applied nationally, though his usual jurisdiction is only western Washington.
The law allows any one of the 677 federal district court judges to apply some decisions nationally. This judge found the Constitution requires a uniform rule on immigration and limiting his order only to his area would disrupt national uniformity.
By what authority did he come to this conclusion? He turned to the case in which a federal court in Texas blocked President Obama’s policy not to expel many illegal or undocumented aliens. That case was launched by the attorney general of Texas, but the decision applied nationally.
When Congress found itself powerless to oppose Obama’s executive orders, some states moved into action. Usually led by Texas, they filed cases in courts they thought would be friendly, seeking at least to delay the president’s policies and in the hope the next president would abandon them.
Texas was usually backed by other conservative-led states. The Washington case is backed by 15 states and, unlike the Texas filings, by top American corporations.
The difference between the cases was that “no-drama Obama” did not protest when he lost, while Trump attacked the judge, an almost unheard of assault by one branch of government against another, and asserted he would win on appeal.
The main similarity was that a state, acting on its own initiative, could take on the president and did it. Like the Texas case, an appeals court upheld the ruling.
Conservatives, advocating a reduced role for the federal government, have long argued that more power should be left to the states. They claim that’s what the drafters of the American Constitution intended. While that view had withered, the Supreme Court has worked successfully to bring it back.
Trump’s victory and GOP control of Congress could result in the federal government backing off a broad range of actions from environmental protection to controls on Wall Street. Their policies could lead to more voter suppression and less health insurance coverage.
On all these issues, the states can step in to fill the gap. The 20 states carried by Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 elections are home to 44 percent of the American population. State action there could have a major impact.
California, already a leader on environmental matters, has made clear its determination to protect and expand its policies. The federal government would have a tough time trying to block state action simply because it does not act nationally.
In the Collins-Cassidy proposal to allow states the option of retaining the Affordable Care Act, the two GOP senators would keep federal funds flowing to them. Even if their party would cut the money off, states could keep Obamacare or even adopt single-payer insurance.
In Canada, where there is now national single-payer health insurance, the program started in only one province with a population even smaller than Maine’s. California, with an economy that would make it the sixth largest “country” in the world, could do it.
It’s unlikely that the financial world would abandon Wall Street for Houston if New York State adopted some of the post-recession financial protective rules that Trump wants to abandon.
States could even decide to upset the Electoral College system of electing the president and replace it with the popular vote without amending the Constitution. States with at least 270 electoral votes could decide to bind their presidential electors to voting for the candidate with the most popular votes nationally.
President Trump seems to see himself as the CEO of the United States, expecting the other branches of government to fall in line with him because he won his election. The Washington court action, perhaps even more than Congress at this point, has provided him a basic course in U.S. government.
Progressive states have begun to assert the very kind of independence of Washington long advocated by GOP conservatives. As the old political saying goes, “What goes around, comes around.”

Friday, February 3, 2017

Politicians ignore historic racism, role of press

Today, governments in Washington and Maine are headed by men whose idea of history goes back no further than their own memory span and whose concept of the American political tradition is limited to their own opinions.

While President Trump's economic policy looks backward at failed and outmoded moves like protectionism, he and his team otherwise fail to look deep enough or wide enough into American history to understand their place in it.

Trump and Gov. Paul LePage (if not a member of Trump's team, certainly in tune with it) believe that African Americans are not grateful to the white people who sacrificed for the cause of racial justice. They even believe one leading black civil rights leader didn't really do anything.

History reveals hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crow oppression of blacks at the hands of whites. For centuries, human beings were bought and sold with their families destroyed. For Trump and LePage, history apparently began only with the civil rights movement.

The problem with not going deep enough into American history is that these men cannot understand major undercurrents of American politics. African Americans understandably know their history and continue to be influenced by it. Many European Americans share their sentiments.

Because race has perhaps been the most important, continuing element of American history, it is difficult to govern fairly and successfully without knowing more of its history. The country suffers if gradually increasing racial understanding is now displaced by even more affronts.

A deeper knowledge of history would also reveal that Trump must act within the framework of American law as it has evolved. John Adams wrote we have “a government of laws, not of men” and that remains true, though it is severely challenged.

In short, history did not begin on Election Day. In American history, values are bound into law. President Obama liked to talk about common values, though they were difficult for some to identify. It may not be so difficult. Our common values are found in the law of the land, beginning with the Constitution.

Merely winning an election does not give presidents or governors the right to rule. Upon taking office, they enter into a world of laws that are intended to limit the powers given to government by the only recognized sovereign – the people.

Gov. LePage has no lawful basis to claim that a citizens' referendum vote is only advisory or that he can substitute his opinion for the judgment of the voters. If he believes they make incorrect decisions, his role is to lead in the debate not disparage the result.

President Trump has offered no basis for discriminating against Muslims, even if they are Americans, in his immigration policy. The burden of proof that his actions are lawful should fall on him not on the objects of his actions. Congress can change the law, not the president.

History is wider than what current leaders seem to think. One of the president's top aides says the media is the Trump Administration's “opposition party.” He's right, because it is doing its job.

We often hear that political leaders accept “responsibility” or are “accountable” for their actions. Yet when they err, they do not resign. It is the job of the press to hold them accountable, informing voters, who will decide the political price for holding them responsible for their failings.

Politicians have little trouble promoting themselves, and the media readily covers their promises and claims. Candidate Trump benefited from unusually extensive media coverage during the campaign, so much so that the other Republican hopefuls suffered.

But an independent press has a broader role to play in a free society. It should offer information, facts, and full reports on what government is doing.

Trump and LePage both dodge and denigrate the press and make obviously untrue statements. That may their right, but it is up to the media to work for the voters, not the politicians. Even if some charge the media does not tell the truth, it must keep on trying to do just that.

A voter once called out to President Truman, “Give 'em hell, Harry!” He answered, “I just tell the truth and they think it's hell.” That's also the media's job.

To its credit, the media seems to have reawakened to an understanding that telling the truth depends on more than reporting both sides of an argument. The press needs independently to publish facts, even if they refute the conventional wisdom or political rhetoric.

And elected leaders should learn some history.