Editor’s note: This is the first column by Democrat Ethan Strimling and Republican Phil Harriman, who will be debating state and national political issues.
Ethan: So, Phil, the primaries are two weeks away, and the latest polls show the Democrats and Republicans getting 34 percent combined against Angus King for U.S. Senate. Are political parties so bankrupt that between us we barely attract a third of the vote?
Phil: Ethan, citing this early polling as an indicator of the November results is like declaring your Knicks are going to beat my Celtics in the playoffs after observing the first game’s warm-up. It’s not how we start, it’s how we finish.
Ethan: Well, I’m certainly pleased to hear that you’re feeling so confident. With that level of complacency, my Democrats will be eating your lunch in no time. But, in all honesty, many of us Dems are feeling a little discouraged about the possibility of another third-place finish in a statewide race. We haven’t had a Democrat win a statewide majority since 1988, and after losing the House, Senate and Blaine House in 2010 we need a Moses to lead us from the desert. Or maybe a Muskie.
Phil: No complacency here, just not as despondent about my party. After all, we currently hold two U.S. Senate seats, the governor’s mansion and run both branches of the State House. Yes, we have a long way to go to beat Angus, but I think that’s more a factor of the rose-colored glasses people are wearing about his candidacy. That will change once our nominee sets out the vision he or she has to restore fiscal integrity.
Ethan: Yes, and much of Angus’ current strength is due to Democrats not having a strong contender in the race. Chellie Pingree, Mike Michaud or John Baldacci would have garnered an easy 30 percent. But as soon as our big names passed, that support dropped to 12 percent! That just shows support for my party is more a cult of personality than ideologically based. The fundamental issue remains that the person on the street doesn’t have a solid sense of what Democrats stand for these days and how we are fighting for them.
Phil: I do agree with you that a good chunk of King’s strength lies in the fact that he was a “convinced” Democrat, and because you do not have a top tier candidate he will enjoy Democratic support. Gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler got the same artificial bounce when Libby Mitchell’s campaign ran out of gas in 2010.
Let me also say, my party is certainly not without challenges. Our growing urgency with the fiscal crisis is causing us to lose an experienced ambassador in U.S. Sen. Olympia Snowe. And Lord knows, Gov. Paul LePage’s less than diplomatic manner (am I being too diplomatic?) has caused much consternation. My party needs to more clearly describe how they are building confidence with job creators and instilling fiscal discipline in the government sector. We must have congressmen and women who will sacrifice their next election for the next generation. That’s called courage.
Ethan: If the courage you are referring to is the courage George Bush Sr. exhibited when he raised taxes to save our economy back in 1990, then I am right there with you.
Phil: Parties should ask themselves one question: Will our candidate use their influence in the caucus (especially if they are in the majority) to bring the deficit down by the end of their first term? Your problem is as simple as that.
Ethan: Um … Phil, you really need to give that advice to your own party. George W. Bush turned a surplus into a $3 trillion deficit, and the first budget Maine Republicans passed in Augusta increased the size of state government by almost 10 percent.
Phil: Ethan, any impression I gave that led you to think Democrats are solely responsible for the mess we’re in was unintentional. Elected members of both parties have a legacy of spending money we don’t have. They have curried favor with voters for re-election while sending the bill to the generations to follow for as long as we can see. What a shame.
Ethan: Look, I certainly agree that your party should stop being hypocritical on spending, but I don’t think Democrats are suffering because we aren’t acting like Republicans. We’re suffering because we aren’t acting like Democrats. Government has a vital role to play in making sure health care is available, roads are smooth, our kids get educated, our streets are safe, our elderly are fed and taxes are fair. We Democrats need to be unblinking in that cause and carrying that message. Lord knows, that would differentiate us from you “government is always bad” types.
Phil: In the meantime, us government minimalists will just keep kicking your butt, to paraphrase my less than diplomatic governor.
Ethan Strimling and Phil Harriman are former state senators. They are political commentators on WCSH/WLBZ TV and WGAN Radio. You can follow them on Twitter @Ethan6_2 and @Phil6_2.