ORONO, Maine — Former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen on Thursday urged Americans to take control of their government and demand that elected officials work together to make the hard choices it will take to lower the deficit and cut the growth of the federal budget.
Former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, who was the featured speaker at the biennial William S. Cohen Lecture Series at the University of Maine, was more blunt. He urged the more than 1,000 attendees to attend the next town meeting of their elected representatives.
“And when you hear that wonderful phrase from your elected official standing there in the beauty of the glare of the [television] camera: ‘I know what the problem is and we can get it done without touching precious Medicare, precious Medicaid, precious defense, or precious Social Security. God bless you,’” the former Republican senator from Wyoming said.
“Then, you should get up and say, ‘You, sir, are making a terminological inexactitude, you lying son of a bitch.’”
Cohen, 74, and Simpson, 83, both served in the U.S. Senate from 1979 to 1997. The two met Thursday on the stage of the Collins Center for the Arts for a conversation titled “The State of Our Nation: Hardball vs Civility.” It was moderated by former Bangor Daily News executive editor Mark Woodward.
Both men were tapped by Democratic presidents to serve in their administrations. Cohen served as Secretary of Defense under President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001. In 2010, President Barack Obama appointed Simpson and Erskine Bowles, a Democrat, to head the 18-member National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
The final plan would have reduced the federal deficit by nearly $4 trillion, stabilizing the growth of debt held by the public by 2014, reduce debt 60 percent by 2023 and eliminate it by 2035.
Efforts to implement it stalled after it received 11 out of 18 votes, Cohen said Thursday.
Cohen and Simpson agreed that the civility they enjoyed with their Democratic colleagues has disappeared in Washington, D.C. Cohen pointed to the amount of money needed to win an election, the 24-hour news cycle and social media and the unwillingness of the parties to criticize the extremists who opposed compromise as some of the reasons.
The former senator from Maine stopped short of predicting another government shutdown but said he did not expect Congress to pass a budget because “everyone is looking to 2014 and 2016.”
Cohen said that most of the American people are upset by the gridlock they see in Washington but need to take a long, hard look in the mirror if solutions are to be found to the nation’s problems.
“It’s going to take the American people saying, ‘We’ve gotten selfish, we haven’t disciplined ourselves, we’ve gotten soft and flabby in our thinking and our policies and we are going to forfeit the future unless we change,’” he said. “The great thing about this country is that we are so capable of change and when forced to do so, we will do so.”
He urged students and community members, along with university faculty and staff, to support implementation of the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson Commission.
In a light moment, Simpson said that Wyoming and Maine are similar in their outlook because in 1992, 26 percent of the electorate voted for Ross Perot for president and 23 percent of Wyoming voters did.
“These are states full of independent, crotchety people,” Simpson said.
The lecture series is a function of UMaine’s William S. Cohen Center for International Policy and Commerce, which was established in 1997. The Cohen Center was founded to bring distinguished speakers with informed perspectives on matters related to international policy and commerce to the University of Maine.
Cohen, who is a former UMaine business faculty member, donated his collection of papers chronicling his congressional career to UMaine’s Fogler Library when the center was established, and in January 2001, Cohen donated the papers from his tenure as Secretary of Defense to the university.
An earlier version of this story requires correction. The William S. Cohen Lecture Series occurs on a biennial, not biannual, basis.