October 14, 2010

GORDON L. WEIL: In today's divisive politics, Muskie's bipartisanship would not work

Last Saturday, Bates College held a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Muskie Archives, an impressive operation that houses the papers of Edmund S. Muskie, Maine's former governor, senator and U.S. Secretary of State.

The occasion was organized to praise Muskie and his legislative accomplishments and to try to evaluate his legacy. His former Senate staffers and students of American politics led the discussion.

All agreed that his greatest legislative achievements were the Clean Air Act of 1970 and the Clean Water Act of 1972, the landmark laws that put environmental policy on the national agenda.

As a new senator, Muskie had been shunted to the Public Works Committee -- not the place to have a major impact. But Muskie saw the appointment as the opportunity to capture the leading role in promoting what was then called "anti-pollution" laws.

One can almost regret that "anti-pollution" became "environmental." It's difficult to be "pro-pollution," and a lot easier to claim that "environmentalists" have gone too far and are anti-business.

Muskie went to the U.S. Senate in 1959, so it took him quite a while to get these historic bills passed. He believed in building broad coalitions. Having come to office as a Democratic governor facing an overwhelmingly Republican Legislature, he understood the desirability of bipartisan support for his proposals.

He needed patience, persistence and a commitment to the process, characteristics that Don Nicoll, his former top aide, said Muskie understood and accepted. Popular with Maine voters, he had the comfort of being able to wait out the opposition.

Muskie was a rare senator. When I worked for another U.S. senator, I learned that Muskie was among a relative handful of senators who studied and understood the issues. Most either played follow the leader or pursued only a single issue on behalf of their constituents.

His former staff members say he worked hard to master issues. Because he took the time to study a range of matters, he probably missed out on some of the camaraderie that helped oil the wheels of the senatorial mill. He had few close friends among his colleagues.

Yet, because of his ability and demeanor, he was widely respected by his colleagues. His approach more than his style gave him great influence, though he undoubtedly exasperated those who liked to play political games wheeling and dealing.

The Bates discussions kept coming back to Muskie's emphasis on civility in the governmental process. Though possessor of a legendary temper, Muskie treated others with respect and recognized that even his opponents might have sincerely held and reasonable positions.

Contrast Muskie with today's Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, who favors no-holds-barred confrontation, even with members of his own party, over finding legislative compromises. DeMint sees ideological purity as more important than passing any legislation on which conservatives would have to make concessions.

Tolerated by his Republican colleagues, DeMint uses the right of any senator to block confirmation of presidential appointments as a way to tie up government. It is difficult to believe that Muskie would have done that.

"Could Muskie be a model for today?" asked Joel Goldstein, the Saint Louis University law professor who is writing a Muskie biography.

The participants provided a disappointing answer. Muskie emerged from the discussion as something of a glorious anachronism. Maybe he knew that when he resigned his senate seat in 1980 to take a short tour as Secretary of State.

The media came in for a major share of the responsibility for the loss of civility in the public arena. The three television networks and a few key newspapers during Muskie's tenure have been overwhelmed by cable channels that report the news instantly and pass off opinion as news.

Flooded by instant news and opinion, people barely get the chance to understand issues. Choices are intentionally dumbed down.

While the Democratic Party in Congress continues to include a wide range of views, many of them contradictory, the Republicans have developed remarkable discipline. Now their policy is to block President Obama's initiatives, no matter how minor and noncontroversial, in their effort to defeat him in 2012.

It seems improbable that any senator, for all of his or her reliance on Muskie-style patience and perseverance, could now be as effective in building bipartisan coalitions as was the Maine senator.

Some speakers suggested that history shows that the current deep divisions will pass; we may have to wait for history to take its course. Perhaps Muskie will be a model for tomorrow, if not today.

Gordon L. Weil, a weekly columnist for this newspaper, is an author, publisher, consultant and former international organization, U.S. and Maine government official.

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