George Mitchell: US approaching golden age despite ‘very negative emotion’ about politics

Posted Jan. 28, 2014, at 11:14 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 28, 2014, at 5:53 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell said Tuesday that despite how daunting some of the country’s problems are, the United States is on the precipice of one of the most prosperous eras in American history.

Mitchell, who was in Augusta on Tuesday to address the Legislature and participate in an unveiling of his portrait in the State House Hall of Flags, made the remarks during an interview Tuesday morning with the Bangor Daily News.

“There will be substantial economic growth in the United States over the next couple of decades as our comparative advantage with other countries grows, not lessens,” he said. “I think, in fact, that the next half century will be one of the greatest periods in American history.”

Mitchell qualified his remarks about the nation’s future with the caveat that the political gridlock in Congress must end. However, he said ending that partisan stalemate might be possible only if all Americans see positive changes that would restore their faith in the democratic process.

“When times are tough, the politics get rough,” said Mitchell. “While a steady and strong period of economic growth, job creation and rising incomes won’t by itself solve the problem, it will go a long way toward draining the very negative emotion that exists around the country about the political process.”

Mitchell said that while Republicans and Democrats are drifting apart ideologically, there are some practical solutions. One is for every state to institute nonpolitical processes for redrawing congressional districts, which happens every 10 years after census data are released. Mitchell said 15 states have already moved toward nonpartisan redistricting.

“If that spreads throughout the country, it will go a long way toward making the political process more competitive, particularly in the House of Representatives,” he said. “Right now, four-fifths of the seats in the House of Representatives are not competitive between the political parties in the general election, which means the pivotal moment in American politics is no longer the general election, but it is the primary process. Since we have low participation in the nominating process, the extremes on both sides — the more rigid, the ideological, the more fervent — have a disproportionate weight in the elections. As a consequence, the members [of Congress] fear in the primaries the more extreme candidates.”

Another problem lies with the undue influence in elections of corporate and special interest money, which Mitchell said was made gravely worse by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that unleashed a massive increase of anonymous money into politics.

“Citizens United will go down in history as one of the worst decisions ever made by an American Supreme Court. It didn’t create the problem. The problem was there, but it poured gasoline on the fire,” said Mitchell, who is a former federal judge and chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in the mid-1980s. “People just don’t think the members of Congress are representing them anymore. The vast sums of money that pour into politics is demeaning to the participants and unhealthy for a democratic society. Some reasonable controls on how money is raised and spent in our system could go a long way.”

During his speech to the Legislature, Mitchell moved from urging Republicans and Democrats to seek compromise with one another to the importance of ensuring that Maine students have chances to succeed regardless of their backgrounds. Mitchell contributed personally to that goal by founding the Mitchell Institute in 1995, which awards scholarships to a student from each public high school in Maine annually. He said that experience has taught him something about Maine students.

“Maine students are as good as any students in America,” said Mitchell, triggering a standing ovation from the hundreds of people in attendance. “If they are given the chance and the tools, they can compete with anyone, anywhere and at any time.”