April 08, 2020

Jean Hay Bright and Maine’s safe Senate seat

Last spring Jean Hay Bright asked me to contribute to her election effort. I tried to dissuade her from running. My argument was that Olympia Snowe was unbeatable both because of her long tenure, the immense financial advantages incumbency confers, and her artful job of convincing the media and the public that she is a “moderate.” I doubted that Jean could break though these combined barriers. I also worried that there would be great opportunity costs.

She has been an activist on behalf of many worthy causes. Her time might be better spent on those causes than in a futile effort to win the Senate seat. I am glad Jean did not take my advice. Snowe probably is unbeatable, but Hay Bright’s efforts highlight aspects of Snowe’s record that should receive much closer scrutiny even from moderate Republicans. (For the record, after our conversation I felt so guilty about slighting her effort that I contributed $200 to her campaign.)

Political parties and ordinary citizens make a mistake when they fail to contest “safe seats.” Their mistake lies in part in the inherent unpredictability of politics. Strange things occasionally happen. Even over very short periods particular events, polls and media coverage can suddenly converge to produce unforeseen outcomes. Beyond the difficulty in determining when and how voters might come to decide a candidate can win, there is another more long-term problem in neglecting safe seats.

Even losing races can both contribute to political education and build possibilities for the future. Neil Rolde’s surprisingly strong but unsuccessful bid to unseat another venerable Maine institution, William Cohen, increased the visibility of health care as a political issue. Those of us who have spent most of our lives in political reflection need to remember that many citizens focus on politics – if at all – only during an election. To forgo elections is to miss a major opportunity to engage these citizens.

When Maine citizens cast their votes next week, they might well focus on two related areas, the occupation of Iraq and the future of our civil liberties and our democratic process. Olympia Snowe voted to authorize the war in Iraq, but to her credit has recently argued that “Staying the course is neither an option nor a plan.” I think it is generally fruitless to assess motives behind political shifts. My concern is both the time it took to make the shift and the senator’s relatively low profile on this issue.

Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, representing a more conservative state, has long been outspoken about the failures of the current occupation of Iraq. From her current statements, I still find it hard to determine how Snowe will handle this issue in the next year. It is clear that Hay Bright would push for a prompt but orderly withdrawal from a situation where the U.S. military presence only exacerbates a civil war.

Since the indefinite occupation of Iraq entails escalating security risks as well as exponentially expanding fiscal obligations it is crucial that voters call a halt. In mid-September, this paper had an admittedly unscientific poll asking readers if they would vote for a candidate whose views on Iraq they opposed. An overwhelming majority indicated they would not.

There are many moderate Republicans in Maine increasingly opposed to the Iraq occupation. They could send a clear signal both on their position and on the centrality of the war by voting for Jean Hay Bright.

Just as the next Congress must exercise leadership on Iraq, it may face equally important issues regarding the future of our democracy. Last summer, the Supreme Court struck down President Bush’s kangaroo courts stripping Guantanamo Bay detainees of basic legal protections. More basically, the court rejected any interpretation of the president’s war powers as unlimited.

That decision, however, was by a narrow 5-4 vote. Dissenters included Justice Samuel Alito, who has been a prime architect of the “unitary executive” school of constitutional inter-pretation, which allows the president to override Fourth Amendment restraints against unreasonable search and seizure as well as congressional limitations on domestic spying.

In a bad judgment from both policy and narrow politics, Snowe voted with her party’s hard right to confirm Alito, as she did for other hard-right judicial nominees. With John Paul Stevens, the author of the majority opinion in the case, now 86 years old and Ruth Bader Ginsberg reportedly facing health problems, the next Senate likely will be asked to confirm one more nominee in the Alito mold.

A famous Republican moderate of another era, Margaret Chase Smith, opposed the crude violations of civil liberties her party tolerated and encouraged during the McCarthy era. I am skeptical that Olympia Snowe will show similar courage. Since Supreme Court nominees are for life and since the U.S. Supreme Court plays so central a role in sustaining our political freedoms, I am worried.

John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor. Readers wishing to contact him may e-mail messages to jbuell@acadia.net.

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