BANGOR, Maine — Five of the men and women who have represented the people of Maine in the U.S. Senate were at the Cross Insurance Center on Friday night to talk about their careers and the state of American politics as the presidential election looms.
Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King were joined by former Sens. William Cohen, George Mitchell and Olympia Snowe in what was billed as a “historic event” at the annual dinner for the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, which focused on ending deadlock in Washington.
The wide-ranging discussion moderated by John Harwood, chief Washington correspondent for CNBC and a political writer for the New York Times, touched on the election, foreign policy, the changing world economy and political polarization.
But the focus of the discussion again and again returned to the need for bipartisanship so problems the nation is facing can be addressed with less finger-pointing and name-calling.
In a show of bipartisanship, all agreed that the center seems to have disappeared from the political spectrum as the extreme fringes of the Republican and Democrats have pushed out centrists.
“My experience is that if you can get broad agreement on the facts, policy can be done,” King, an independent who was elected in 2012, said. “The most pernicious doctrine out there today is that compromise is a dirty word. No human enterprise can survive without compromise.”
Mitchell and Cohen both said that they don’t expect centrists to be in power again or to be demanded by the American public any time soon. Both said they thought the concept must return in the long run.
Cohen said that globalization, immigration and the democratization of information have caused shifts in job opportunities in the country, a loss of identity and the feeling that the playing field is not level any more.
“Those three factors are what is pulling us apart and pulling us to extremes,” said Cohen, who served in the U.S House of Representatives from 1973 to 1979 and in the U.S. Senate from 1979 to 1997 and as secretary of defense from 1997 to 2001.
Collins, who was first elected in 1996, said that she and King have seen the center work and she thinks the next president could get bipartisan support from Congress.
“The next president has the opportunity to pick issues that have broad bipartisan support by increasing funding for biomedical research, which affects every American family, introducing an initiative that rebuilds our crumbling infrastructure and by really embracing tax reform,” she said.
Snowe, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1995 to 2013 and as a member of the U.S. House from 1979 to 1995, left the Senate, in part, because of increasing partisanship.
“We need to reinforce what Susan and Angus do working across the aisle,” she said. “The essence of public service is solving problems. We, the American public, must support those who work across the aisles.”
Mitchell, who was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1980 to complete the unexpired term of Sen. Edmund Muskie and served until 1995, said that economic inequality is the greatest challenge facing Americans and the world today.
“What will change that is our devising effective policy to continue to harness the great benefits of technology and trade as we continue to provide more access to education,” Mitchell said. “If we raise the standard of living for all, the politics will sort itself out.”
As the senior senator on the dias, Cohen took the opportunity to wrap up the discussion with a comment once made about him by a constituent.
“He came into our Portland office and told the receptionist, ‘Your boss, he’s too … he’s too reasonable,’” Cohen said.
That stuck with Christopher Marshall, 35, of Portland, who attended the dinner.
“The pride I feel living in Maine knowing that we have such reasonable people representing us is what I take with me,” he said.