By Tom Lamia
Recently in this series of essays that now may be aging out (launched January 2017), I have written about Steven Breyer, Susan Collins and Jared Golden. Only Collins and Golden are Mainers, but all came to mind when thinking about something important, or at least relevant, to our current troubled times.
Troubled because despair over the country’s political and financial circumstances at the moment is at a high pitch and ready answers for remedies are nowhere to be seen. We seem to have a political fight to the death going on as elections approach, for Congress and for state and local offices, elections that have taken on new importance because a good number of citizens appear to have endorsed illegal activities, including violence, to achieve their objectives. We also have a crisis of unprecedented proportions within our system of government at both the national and local level. The institutions and procedures that have served government for generations as accepted elements of our constitutional democracy are no longer trusted by many, including majorities in many parts of the country. The animosity level and the tactics employed resemble nothing more than the situation immediately preceding the Civil War. We had a savior then in Abraham Lincoln, but what logic or right tells us that such a figure will come now to our rescue?
The headlines speak of insurrection, insurrectionists, sedition, stolen elections, refusals to negotiate, cults espousing hare-brained theories, no common ground that can be maintained for more than the time that it takes for the hateful sparring to take to social media. Can we look beyond the headlines and break the vicious radical cycle?
When I wrote about Steve Breyer (Man in the Middle, November 2021) there was a growing discomfort among Democrats with Justice Breyer’s continuing to hold his seat on the Supreme Court. His age (83) and the prospect of future Republican control of the Senate threatened a Merrick Garland-like Republican refusal to give a Senate hearing to any President Biden nominee, leading to the loss of another Supreme Court seat for Democrats.
My point was that I know Steve Breyer, a classmate in law school, and trust his judgment on when to hang up the black robe. I believe that I also noted that Justice Breyer was a valuable member of the Court whose skills included a rare ability to reason effectively with all of his colleagues, allowing jurisprudence, not politics, to prevail. All of that was subsumed by the fear among Democrats that immediate action was needed to slough off the old for the new.
Now, with Breyer’s retirement announced and his successor confirmed, the ground seems to have opened under the Court’s reputation for conservative, apolitical decision-making and collegiality. In the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on his successor’s nomination, she was barraged with assertions that her sentencing decisions in child pornography cases suggested a weakness for pedophilia. Her service as a public defender was cited as a weakness for criminals. The headline was “Breyer successor soft on crime and criminals.” Look past the headline and you see a highly qualified judge and an admirable human being. Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination was approved but a stain was placed on the nomination process.
Susan Collins (Community, December 2020) and Jared Golden (A Golden Opportunity, May 2022) each play a role in this looming crisis. The headlines are that Representative Golden is an incumbent who has been careful with his votes so as not to annoy the many conservative rural voters in his district, so is well positioned for the coming elections. Collins does not face voters this November and still carries a post-election glow from having outperformed her party in 2020.
Senator Collins is a solid member of the Maine Republican community. In 2020 she was re-elected for the sixth time with a nine-point margin over a well-financed Democrat. In that same election, Donald Trump was defeated, also by a nine-point margin, by Joe Biden. My thesis was that Mainers trusted Collins, born and raised in Maine, while her opponent, born in Rhode Island, was “from away.”
Then there was the bombshell of the leaked draft opinion that would overrule Roe v. Wade. Collins immediate reaction was that the proposed ruling was “completely inconsistent” with what nominees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh had told her about their views on Roe prior to her votes to confirm them. Behind the headlines of her deep Maine roots is now the issue of whether she looks foolish in having been taken in by these Justices who appear now to have voted to repeal Roe.
The headlines praising Representative Golden for his sagacity in voting to support issues favored by his rural electorate may also need some rewriting. Golden’s likely opponent in November, Bruce Poliquin, used to hold the seat and still has not conceded the 2018 race that put Golden in office. It’s a Trump-friendly district and “Trump Before Trump” former two-term governor Paul LePage is running again.
Maine’s Reproductive Privacy Act, enacted over 20 years ago, provides strong protection for abortion rights, but that protection depends on the continuing service of its governor, Janet Mills, and control of its legislature by Democrats. In this election year all are vulnerable. LePage is a notorious anti-abortion advocate. Mills is a supporter of Planned Parenthood. LePage is popular in Golden’s district. The abortion issue will draw many voters to the polls to vote against Mills and abortions and for LePage, Poliquin and Republican legislative candidates.
The result if things go wrong for Democrats in this year when President Biden is not on the ballot, is that anti-abortion fervor and a loss of credibility for the Susan Collins moderate wing of the Maine Republican party could be a seismic shift in Maine and national politics, and a dramatic further loss in reputation and credibility of the Supreme Court.
It is for times like these that strong, principled, trusted and effective justices are needed on the Court, both as wise counselors and as battle-hardened warriors in the political battles that are being waged in Washington. Steve Breyer is such a justice. It is a great loss that he will not continue. The emergence of political issues in the reversal of Roe is the greater loss. Breyer’s talents and long service gave him insight and credence in that Supreme Court conference room. That influence is not discernible in the leaked draft opinion written by Justice Alito. In its 98 pages there is a pervasive hostility towards those who produced the Roe decision in 1973 and Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992. It also fails to give proper weight to the giants of the Court from Louis Brandeis to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose efforts to enshrine a right to privacy and protection for women in our national jurisprudence, are now about to be riddled with the buckshot of MAGAism.
A problem that many voices being heard in the current political dialogue suffer from is a failure to look past the headline, a failure to examine the facts behind the discussion. I am tempted to say “the true facts,” but that would be a redundancy. If it is not true it is not a fact. That truth may no longer be the essential ingredient of honest communication is the saddest fact of all. Arguments are seen on Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms that unashamedly incorporate lies and half-truths. These are now seen as the best way to persuade and only one more literary device open to the persuader. These communicators accept no responsibility for their failures of truth. A legislative curtain against defamation protects them. This gives them a license to do what newspapers and other users of the right of free speech cannot do without risking bankruptcy. These are sources that do not hold truth to be the core of their mission.