November 9, 2010

DAVID B. OFFER: Collins optimistic that moderation is key to success by Congress

The votes were barely counted last week before national columnists and pundits began analyzing the impact of the Republican victories. Many predicted more gridlock.

“Moderate Republicans will be less likely to cooperate across party lines for fear of primary challenges from conservatives unwilling to compromise,” wrote Tribune News Service Lisa Mascaro in an analysis printed in this newspaper.

I think — and I certainly hope — that they are wrong. If politicians of both parties have the sense of a Maine moose, they will recognize that the election returns show that people want Congress and the president to do what it takes to turn the economy around. That can’t be done by government gridlock.

Nothing I saw in the election returns leads me to conclude that voters think either party has all the answers — neither the Tea Party right nor the far-left approach of soon-to-be-former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Not every post-election analysis suggests that the new Congress will be gridlocked.

Sen. Susan Collins is optimistic that the middle-of-the-road reasonable lawmakers from both parties will find a way to work together. Moderates may find answers that elude hard-core partisans, left and right. 

The day after the election, Collins told me she had received a post-election telephone call from Mark Kirk, the Illinois Republican elected to fill the Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama.

“I can’t wait to join your Mod Squad,” Kirk told her.

Kirk, Maine’s two senators, Collins and Olympia Snowe and moderates of both parties are a welcome contrast to Rand Paul, the new Tea Party-Libertarian-Republican senator from Kentucky, who continued to express his right-wing go-it-alone views in a post-election speech. I think he and others of his ilk will find that approach won’t work in the real world and that voters will not stand for it.

(The late Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island once told me that he found it easier to accomplish things if he let others take the credit.)

While Tea Party insurgents such as Paul made more noise and received much of the publicity, Collins said she thinks moderates in both parties will work together on economic issues.

A good start, she said, would be extending the Bush tax cuts for two years and using that time to develop a more comprehensive economic reform. “The economy is too fragile for any kind of a tax increase,” even on the wealthy, right now, she said.

Working together, Collins said, the president and the Congress could tackle tax reform in a significant way. The issues are complex; eliminating waste, fraud and abuse sounds good in a campaign, but the problems are far deeper than that. Economic reform must consider entitlement programs, she said.

“People are receptive to a serious conversation about what we need to do to get back on a sensible fiscal course,” she said.

“If the president is smart, he’ll lead that effort,” Collins said. “He is skilled at explaining things” and should use his ability to communicate to help bring people together. She compared the leadership required with Richard Nixon’s surprising and dramatic opening to China.

“I think the people are ready for that,” she said. “We need to start fresh.”

Collins said she was also encouraged by comments made by Rep. John Boehner, who will be the next speaker of the House. “He didn’t gloat. He said we need to get to work.”

“We Republicans understand that the voters aren’t happy with us, either,” she said. “Neither party has a good approval rating. We have to show that we can govern. The stakes are high.”

As we discussed the election returns, Collins was critical of Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for backing Tea Party losers in Nevada and Delaware. By taking that action, “they cost us two seats we could have won,” she said.

Collins said Palin will be weakened if Sen. Lisa Murkowski wins her write-in campaign for re-election in Alaska. Election officials say enough write-in votes were cast that Murkowski could be the winner.

Palin — who has a long family grudge against Murkowski — supported Tea Party candidate Joe Miller, who won the Republican primary.

Collins does not expect Palin to run for president.

“I think she likes being a celebrity commentator for Fox and a speaker and being able to provide for her family,” Collins said. “I think that life appeals to her. It’s a lot easier to charge people up than to actually govern.”

The same can be said for many who will be heading to Congress after campaigns that were more filled with attacks than ideas.

If Collins is right, the Mod Squad may lead the way.

David B. Offer is the retired executive editor of the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel. E-mail

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