Democrats wring their hands

State Convention Watch
By LANCE TAPLEY  |  June 6, 2012

Interviewed separately at the Democratic State Convention, Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud gave identical responses to the question of what would it take for the Democrats to triumph in November.

"Turn the economy around," said Pingree, the First District congressional rep.

"If the economy turns around," said Michaud, the Second District congressman.

In the doubtful event the reader hasn't paid attention to the economy, it has not turned around dramatically since it crashed in 2008, especially in employment numbers. At best, things are very slowly improving. On the day Pingree and Michaud were interviewed, June 1, a dismal federal jobs report sent the stock market into a dive.

Their responses to the next question — if the economy doesn't turn around, what's Plan B? — also were similar. They murmured platitudes like "stick to our core principles" (Pingree) and "getting our message out there" (Michaud).

Welcome to the charged-up, take-charge Maine Democratic Party five months from the general election. Or, as State Representative Henry Beck, of Waterville, who introduced Pingree to a meager crowd at the Augusta Civic Center, put it: "I know the people in this room are worried."

Political conventions are ritualistic occasions for party leaders to boost the morale of troops about to be sent into electoral battle. Democratic leaders made a brave effort, but the demoralization at this convention appeared deep. In addition to the economy, there were other causes:

•The chronic depression resulting from the party's loss in 2010 of the governorship and both legislative houses. Senate assistant minority leader Justin Alfond, of Portland, said in a speech that Democratic legislators have been in "survival mode."

•The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, allowing corporations to give unlimited money to campaigns. Pingree acknowledged in the interview that Democrats will be outspent.

•Angus King, the popular former governor running for the United States Senate as an independent. Widely expected to win, he has so much support from Democratic voters that the winner among the four Democrats competing in the June 12 primary is not expected to receive much national party money.

The Republican Senate primary winner, however, may be heavily financed by national Republican sources. Even if King doesn't win, convention delegates expressed fears he could attract enough Democratic voters to throw the election to the Republican — just as independent Eliot Cutler did in 2010 when Republican Paul LePage was elected governor with 38 percent of the vote.

Still, in a presidential election year the presidential nominees' coattails or lack of them are crucial for candidates up and down the ticket.

And, as New York Times economics analyst David Leonhardt wrote recently, "unless job growth accelerates substantially," the unemployment issue "will make Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, a favorite."

If questions about the economy are "left unanswered," conceded Democratic party chairman Ben Grant, they "will have a negative effect for us."

Moreover, grass-roots passion for President Barack Obama may be low because Democratic activists, who tend to be liberal, feel he hasn't delivered on key issues. Whenever a speaker at the convention mentioned the need for universal, single-payer health insurance — which Obama wouldn't push — it got huge cheers.

Some Democratic politicians even disparaged Obamacare, though they supported it. In her speech, Pingree referred to it as "what little progress we've made." State senator Cynthia Dill, a US Senate primary candidate, said in her remarks, "It's not good enough."

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