March 18, 2019
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A Cutler supporter, reluctant Michaud voter: What’s a pragmatic centrist to do?

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Many Democrats are understandably upset with independent Eliot Cutler after a second “spoiler” election. But they should recognize that his candidacy was natural and unavoidable. Cutler represents what lots of Mainers want to vote for, cut loose and adrift between the two parties: a platform more fiscally grounded than that of the Democrats but without the ideological fever of the Republicans.

The Democratic Party in particular would do well to recognize how appealing that proved to its own youth base.

About two months ago, it became obvious to me that Eliot had won the support of nearly all my high school and college friends who normally would vote Democratic. I can’t remember how many times I saw my friends’ parents posting some links to their kids’ Facebook walls about how Cutler could never win. It took several extended Skype calls for my mother to convince me to cast a reluctant vote for Michaud. A truly odd generation gap became visible — our parents had to talk us out of voting for the business-friendly centrist in favor of the (relatively) liberal Democrat.

Obviously, the Democratic Party didn’t lose all of its youth support, but the scale of the defection to Cutler should give the party pause. What explains this Democratic generation gap?

The Maine Democratic Party used to produce pragmatic progressives, like Cutler’s idol and mentor Edmund Muskie. Such politicians thought that Maine (and American in general) should use some its postwar prosperity to address the most unfair and irrational parts of our economic system. With the help of a good number of Republicans they built the social safety net and assistance programs that we shorthand “welfare,” which produced enormous good for our state and earned the Democrats control of Maine’s Legislature for half a century.

But Maine’s economy and demographics have changed since Muskie’s day in ways that challenge the long-term stability of our safety net and assistance programs. This requires a new, pragmatic assessment of how to maintain these programs without burdening the economy that keeps them afloat. I think this is becoming particularly clear to Democratic voters of my generation, who have spent all our lives in the not-overly-prosperous, post-industrial Maine.

Unfortunately, to many of us it doesn’t look like the Democratic Party of Libby Mitchell and Mike Michaud is prepared to make this tough adjustment. Michaud suffered most of all from the perception that he wasn’t doing the math and adapting his “Maine Made” plan to the fiscal realities of our state. Kicking the can down the road is not a good plan for financing social programs, especially when you are pitching it to young voters who will soon be the main tax base in our aging state.

Cutler engaged so many Democratic-leaning voters of my generation because he seemed to answer our misgivings with the Democratic Party (that it is too burdened with sacred cows and powerful constituencies to make tough, long-term fiscal decisions) while offering an alternative to the ideological fever of the tea party-dominated GOP. He addressed our fears about the sustainability of our social safety net and its potential impacts on Maine’s economic competitiveness without indulging in the tropes about creeping socialism and a permanent dependent class that make tea party “welfare reform” talk so unappealing to us. Cutler’s freedom from the ideological restraints of the current Maine Republican Party allowed him to draw on more tools than just cutting taxes and social programs in his bid to make our state more competitive.

So what should Cutler’s voters (and the thousands of Cutler supporters who, like me, cast a reluctant realist vote for Michaud) do now? How do we ensure that we aren’t forced into the same paradox next election, and the next and the next?

Can we remain some sort of coherent bloc capable of pulling at least one of the parties toward the pragmatic center?

Those of us who consider ourselves discontented young Democrats should make our case to the bruised Maine Democratic Party, which should be thinking very hard right now about how to get back to the Blaine House.

But we ought to understand what this would require: party activism. Not unlike that which allowed tea party activists to have such an outsized influence on the GOP.

This won’t be easy for two reasons. First of all, as moderates, Cutler supporters don’t tend to be the kind of hyper-motivated true believers who gravitate toward party work. Second of all, we young discontented Democrats are, well, young. Many of us might not relish the thought of spending our cherished free evenings in a VFW hall with the local county Democratic Committee.

But we’d better console ourselves to the idea. Left to its own devices, it is unlikely that the Democratic Party will learn the lessons of these past two elections.

Eliot Cutler tried twice to offer us an alternative, and thanks to him for the effort. If we liked the ideas he was offering, it’s time we brought them to the party.

Brian Milakovsky of Somerville currently works as a forest ecologist in Vladivostok, Russia. He votes absentee in Maine elections.


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