They say that “the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” I’ll propose a corollary: the true test of a political party’s character is what it does in the minority.
There was plenty to be said over the battle between the Republican U.S. Senate and President Barack Obama following the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. In many ways, it was a long-simmering feud, the fire of which was lit by Sens. Joe Biden and Ted Kennedy attacking President Ronald Reagan’s nominee Robert Bork. The fights over both Bork and Merrick Garland were brazenly political. They turned into a game of political hardball, with each side advancing from a position of strength.
Then Donald Trump got elected, Republicans kept the Senate majority, and got to call the game. Democrats lost their leader in the White House and were relegated to picking political nits. Before President Trump could announce a new nominee for the Supreme Court, some in the minority party declared they would vote against him. Or her. For no reason related to their qualifications.
When Justice Anthony Kennedy decided to step down, the process started anew. Before any of Christine Blasey Ford’s accusations came to light, many Democratic senators — including presidential candidates-in-waiting — announced their opposition to Brett Kavanaugh. But their previous, preemptive rejection of Neil Gorsuch meant their position looked more political than principled.
Yet now, at least in Maine, the shoe is on the other foot. Janet Mills has been inaugurated as the new governor. Sara Gideon and Troy Jackson are the leaders of Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. Republicans are sitting in the minority. And Gov. Mills will face one of the first challenges facing any new administration: appointing people to lead the various parts of the executive branch.
Maine has a somewhat peculiar confirmation process. The joint House-Senate committees review the nominee and make a “yes” or “no” recommendation. This gives great power to the House, as they outnumber Senate committee members fairly heavily. The nomination then goes to the entire Senate, and a two-thirds majority is needed to reject the committee recommendation. The question that comes before the Senate is “Should the recommendation of the committee be overturned?” So, if a nominee is approved by the committee, they have to hope the Senate votes “no.” Like I said, peculiar.
What this really means is that Mills’ nominees will rise or fall in the legislative committees. And Republicans will have five or six votes at that point.
Many of the individuals who are under consideration will hold positions that the GOP opposes. Her would-be Health and Human Services commissioner will work to immediately expand the number of people on the Medicaid program. The nominee for the Department of Labor held the same job under Gov. John Baldacci and came up short for a seat in the state Senate. Other candidates will also hew towards Democratic orthodoxy when it comes to taxes, guns, and regulations.
But the question facing the elected GOP officials is not whether they agree with Mills’ choices. It is whether the individuals before them are qualified for the job they are offered.
Democrats ignored that when it came to Trump’s Supreme Court nominees, staking out opposition because they did not like the philosophies of otherwise-accomplished jurists. It is time for Maine Republicans to take a different path and walk the high road. They should consider the qualifications of the men and women Mills has put forward to serve the state, and soberly weigh their qualifications. If they find the candidate qualified, they should vote to confirm.
Republicans are in the minority, but — to return to leadership of our state — they must demonstrate the character of responsible governance. After all, it’s politics: everyone will be watching.