The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Gordon L. Weil formerly wrote for the Washington Post and other newspapers, served on the U.S. Senate and EU staffs, headed Maine state agencies and was a Harpswell selectman.
It may not be obvious to most voters, but we are in the midst of the 2022 political campaign.
We are learning about the politicians’ view of the voters and probably also the voters’ view of themselves. We may be more conservative than having a Democratic president and governor might imply.
Of course, elections have consequences. President Joe Biden gets to pick his own federal judges and to reverse by the stroke of a pen some of his predecessor’s orders. Gov. Janet Mills got solo power to set the terms of Maine’s COVID-19 emergency thanks to Democratic control of the Legislature.
But the election was not a blank check for either of them. Both have kept an eye on next year’s voting, when Biden would like to score almost unprecedented Democratic congressional mid-term gains and Mills would like to be reelected.
Both face a divided electorate with about half of the voters wary of government and taxes, including many who are right-wing on social issues. Both have to find ways to produce results that can satisfy some center-right voters next year without alienating the growing progressive wing of their party.
Biden knows that Congress could be taken over by the GOP next year. So he wants key elements of his program passed this year. While he might be able to ram some of it through Congress with only Democratic votes, that could cost him next year.
That’s why he touts compromise and has been willing to see his infrastructure bill pared down by a bipartisan congressional group. Even with the deal, he might get a bigger result than Donald Trump had unsuccessfully proposed and it would be all federally financed.
The Republicans’ problem may be Biden’s willingness to compromise and cut deals with conservatives. GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s sole focus seems to be defeating Democrats and retaking control. Compromise is not a tasty dish for him.
The proposed infrastructure deal reveals the rift among Republicans. A few are willing to work on compromises with Biden. They are similar to traditional Republicans, sometimes more practical than ideological.
If the GOP dealmakers, including Sen. Susan Collins, can find 10 GOP senators to support the compromise and prevent a filibuster, the Republicans launch the start of an open struggle to see if the party can free itself from Trumpism. That means there’s a lot more at stake in the infrastructure bill than roads and bridges.
On his side, Biden’s compromises run little risk of creating a Democratic split. The progressives won’t like some of his moves, but they surely do not want to see Congress slip back under Republican control. If that happened next year, they would lose any possible influence on legislation.
Biden is probably counting on their willingness to go along with him in the hope Democrats will pick up congressional seats rather than losing them as would be normal in a mid-term election. The progressives would then stand a chance of gaining greater influence in the second two years of his term.
The big difference between Biden’s situation and Mills’ is that he is not on the ballot next year and she is.
Mills is undoubtedly more conservative than some legislative Democrats. In what the Bangor Daily News called her “veto spree,” it reported: “The governor has vetoed seven bills from this legislative session, including several that were priorities for progressive Democrats in the Legislature.”
Unlike Biden, the governor does not have the benefit of leaving the progressives nowhere else to go. She is denied the benefit of ranked-choice voting, which could have helped her next year.
RCV came about in Maine after Republican Paul LePage won thanks to a split vote between two Democrats, when one ran as an independent. But the Maine Constitution prevents RCV, available now in federal elections and party primaries, from being used in a general election for governor.
At a time when Democrats support a referendum on replacing CMP with a consumer-owned utility, Mills is opposed, so she won’t rally full Democratic support. The fallback would be a petition-driven referendum on the ballot at the same time as her reelection. The pro-referendum organization already exists.
She faces defections by Democrats or, even worse for her, a Democrat-turned-independent who favors the CMP takeover and splits her vote. LePage appears to be the GOP candidate who runs to again take advantage of a Democratic divide.
Both Biden and Mills show the risks faced by Democrats pushed by progressives but facing a significant conservative element in the electorate. They are now engaged in trying to find their way.
What they do in the next few days and weeks may determine what happens in November 2022.