MATTHEW GAGNON

In defense of conflict

Posted March 15, 2012, at 4:41 p.m.

Angus King is a talented man. He has managed to so thoroughly frighten every major player in the Democratic Party, they have abdicated any serious attempt to even try to win a highly coveted seat in the U.S. Senate.

If I didn’t see it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it. For a second-straight major election, the Democrats will have basically given up and faded into third place. If you are a Democrat, that can’t be a good feeling.

Granted, the news that there will be no major Democratic challenger is also bad news for the Republicans and makes it a great deal more difficult for them to hold this seat. But at least the GOP has managed to field a respectable field of aspirants, including the sitting secretary of state, attorney general, state treasurer, a high-ranking state senator and the former president of the Maine Senate.

If they lose to King, it won’t be because they gave up.

It begs a question, though. What is so threatening about Angus King that would dissuade any major Democrat from challenging him? What would drive them to abject surrender?

No, it isn’t some kind of secret deal made with King. Democrats do believe that King is a lot more likely to caucus with them in the Senate than the Republicans, but they also don’t exactly trust King either. The Democrats ran away from this race because they didn’t think they could beat him and didn’t want to endure the shame of losing.

And the key to King’s electoral strength? His amicable nature, warm personality, moderate temperament and the power of his mustache. In short, it is because he is agreeable, inoffensive and all things to all people that makes him appealing. He promises to avoid and disarm conflict, leading the U.S. Senate in a rousing rendition of “Kumbaya,” taming the wild partisan beasts he will encounter.

I certainly understand the appeal. I work in politics, and I’m just as sick and tired of the mindless bickering, bitterness and ankle biting as the rest of you. The idea of restoring some civility and respect and a spirit of cooperation is an attractive one.

Yet there is the problem: we disagree. We are always going to disagree, because questions of public policy are by their very nature complicated, abstract and dependent on perspective. It is not possible — nor should it even be desirable — for all of us to “come together” by setting aside our differences of opinion and sacrificing them on the altar of moderation.

Conflict is a healthy thing. People are different, and that fact provides us with a rich, diverse culture and a robust public debate. The arena of ideas provides us an opportunity for inspiration and the marshaling of public opinion around big, often controversial ideas.

Angus King has wrapped himself in an anti-partisan blanket, bereft of bold ideas or controversial stances. He does not desire to step out on the ledge alone, inspiring dedicated people to follow him. His entire persona is built around one idea: “I will not fight with you. I will not challenge you. I will not make you angry.”

In an age when angry tea partiers and angry occupiers are shouting past each other, not working together in any way, and proud of their lack of compromise, maybe that is what we want.

But conflict doesn’t have to descend into the vitriol and paralysis that we are currently experiencing. These are not mutually exclusive concepts: It is in fact possible to fight like hell about issues you care deeply about and then clap your comrade on the shoulder, buy him a drink and hash out a mutually agreeable compromise.

That is the best model for government we could hope for. True statesmanship. People with deep, ideologically rooted ideas, but a sense of common ground with their political adversaries and a desire to make progress. That is the type of senator I want to see Maine elect.

Voters shouldn’t mistake Angus King’s “believe in nothing and believe in everything” model for such a great and inspiring statesman, simply because he plays one on television. It is a shame the Democrats ran away, and let him get away with it.

Matthew Gagnon, a Hampden native, is a Republican political strategist. He previously worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. You can reach him at matthew.o.gagnon@gmail.com and read his blog at www.pinetreepolitics.com.

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