The Maine Idea: Beyond the kooks and cranks, a certain reassurance

If you just watch the news and the ads – and the social media posts – you could be forgiven the impression that the American political system has gone, well, nuts.

We have a president who realized in February that coronavirus was a huge threat, told the public the opposite, then in late September contracted the often-fatal illness through his own heedlessness – without ever changing his tune. We have a U.S. Senate majority leader who has dropped all pretense of legislating to concentrate on his single paramount goal: packing one more justice onto the Supreme Court.

It’s not that all this doesn’t have an effect on state politics, too. There is, for instance, Dr. Jay Allen, the Republicans’ latest challenger to 1st District Rep. Chellie Pingree.

The title, which appears on all his signs, is genuine. He’s a family physician with a practice in Waldoboro, affiliated with Maine Health through PenBay Medical Center.

He does have a military background and, in announcing his candidacy in August 2019, said he supported Donald Trump and was running primarily because “socialists” were dominating the Democratic Party. You may disagree, but it’s a plausible reason.

What can explain, though, Allen telling supporters at a rally this August – months after most of us had figured it out – “The key issue, from my perspective, is that this masking policy is not necessary.”

Allen followed that up with the assertion that “healthy people” don’t spread coronavirus. Despite his medical training and clinical experience, he doesn’t seem to understand the concept of asymptomatic spread.

Donald Trump has a long history of ignoring advice, and his response to hand-picked physicians treating his illness is no different. Somehow, having a Maine physician leading mask-less indoor political events, and saying it’s fine, is much more disturbing.

Suffice it to say that politics has always attracted its kooks and cranks – those Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken and all the great satirists wrote about. Maine’s versions have usually been milder.

There was a Democrat from Biddeford, on the conservative side, named Plato Truman, who ran countless campaigns for statewide office, starting in the 1960s, without ever winning. His one contribution to Maine politics was his slogan: “Two great names, one great candidate.”

One can’t credit Larry Lockman, the Amherst Republican who was just term-limited out of his Maine House seat, with even that. Yet having edited his letters to the editor back in the ’90s, when he was just another right-wing fruitcake, I cannot quite agree with descriptions of him as merely hateful.

There was a certain flair in Lockman’s language, an ability to get people’s goat, that was original. Democrats would have liked nothing better than to run against him, had he won his July primary bid against three-term GOP Sen. Kim Rosen, but he fell just short.

Most Maine candidates step forward for the right reasons, and it was reassuring to talk with many of those running for the Legislature this year. If there was ever a time to simply denounce the opposition, one would think this might be it.

I found little of that. Perhaps – under the surface – we are beginning to assess and take into account the enormous burdens lawmakers will face in Augusta, as in Washington, when they take up their duties in January.

It was the little things I noticed. Republicans who posted tributes to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Democrats who, noting a common background, appreciated business acumen even among those on the other side of the aisle at the State House.

It’s undoubtedly frustrating to have to campaign mostly virtually – Dr. Allen seems to be the exception, not the rule – but, in addition to the onslaught of ads, there are lots of personal messages flowing back and forth as candidates find new ways to have conversations with voters.

Though it would be hard to claim this makes one optimistic – the crushing challenges and the vast uncertainties ahead are far too great – it could be that a “wartime” consciousness is developing without our realizing it.

That would be William James’s “Moral Equivalent of War,” from his famed 1906 essay, for there is actually as low a probability of major armed conflict as anytime since the 1950s. Rather, it’s a shared understanding, a sense of overriding purpose.

We began the pandemic with the hopeful thought that “We’re all in this together.” Now, disabused of that notion, we may have found the more realistic “We can get through this.”

Despite all the clamor, voting is now going on and will continue until Nov. 3. After that, the really hard work begins.

Douglas Rooks, a Maine editor, reporter, opinion writer and author for 35 years, has published books about George Mitchell, and the Maine Democratic Party. He welcomes comment at [email protected]

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