Whether Eliot Cutler’s move into the middle lane of Maine politics is a ploy to seek elected office again or a genuine bid to move the state forward by appealing to a broad swath of common views remains to be seen. Either way, he will find strong support for his OneMaine political action committee, which appeals to moderate voters.
There are sound reasons to get behind any leader who asserts that Mainers can embrace common-sense, if not libertarian, social values and conservative fiscal principles; that they can believe in conserving land and public access and nurturing a resource-based economy; that they are able to care for the poor and elderly while also demanding bureaucratic efficiency.
The quickest way for a candidate to frighten voters away from an opponent is to characterize that opponent as too extreme. It doesn’t matter whether the extremism is on the left or right, people are historically wary of such candidates. The fear is that if elected, such men and women will take the state or nation outside its historic course. That course has been like a run on a ski slope, moving in long, slow arcs to the left and then the right; no sharp turns allowed.
There are exceptions. Bernie Sanders, who describes himself as a democratic socialist and who voted against the Iraq War in 2003, has represented Vermont in Congress for more than 20 years. Rand Paul, a strict constitutional conservative who suggested civil rights laws ought to be repealed, was elected last fall as one of Kentucky’s U.S. senators.
But back-to-the-landers in Vermont and the tea party faithful in Kentucky aside, electoral success generally follows candidates who present themselves as moderate, independent-thinking, reasonable and practical.
Maine is an especially fertile place for a third-way politics. More voters are registered as unenrolled than are members of the Republican or Democratic parties. Maine has elected two independent governors in the past 35 years. One of those, Angus King, was part of an effort to push for moderate presidential candidates with the Unity ’08 campaign.
Mr. Cutler is safe in assuming that voters are tired of choosing between two nearly mutually exclusive political platforms. In Maine, and probably in many other states, there is an electoral sweet spot not so much in the middle, but in a grocery-cart approach. Voters are happy to stroll the aisles of the political market and pick up what they like from each party and turn their backs on what they don’t.
As the current president and Maine’s governor both have failed to understand, voters often choose a candidate or party based on a belief in their competence. The majority of voters don’t necessarily endorse an ideology, but are persuaded — for the moment, anyway — that this candidate can fix what ails us.
If the OneMaine PAC can raise money and distribute it to candidates, from any or no party, who embrace these mixed-bag views on the issues of the day and our legislative process is transformed, Mr. Cutler can rightly claim to have made Maine a better place.