“An independent,” writes P.J. O’Rourke, “is a person who doesn’t know what to think. And is proud of it.”
O’Rourke’s comment — from his latest book, How The Hell Did This Happen? — wasn’t specifically aimed at independent U.S. Sen. Angus King of Maine. But it could have been.
King has a reputation for taking thoughtful stands on issues. Which is a polite way of saying he dithers around, before reverting to his default setting: whatever the Democrats want him to do.
As a result, his critics complain he’s not a true independent, but a Ideological Democrat In Other Trappings (IDIOT). That’s not entirely fair, since it implies that King blindly follows the donkey party line and doesn’t have a political philosophy of his own. But he does. It’s just kind of simplistic. During his eight years as governor and five-plus years as a senator, King has consistently supported the status quo. The guy doesn’t like change.
That ought to brand him as an old-fashioned conservative, and indeed, he’s occasionally acted like one, vetoing a minimum wage increase when he was governor. But mostly, he avoids anything that carries the slightest hint of original thinking, because fresh ideas seem to upset him.
King isn’t stupid, just a bit dull in that stodgy public-broadcasting way that examines every issue as if it was a recently discovered chunk of petrified dinosaur dung. Fascinating in the abstract. Upon closer inspection, slightly disgusting. Best not to meddle with it.
“I started this process with an open mind,” King said of his much-delayed decision to oppose the Supreme Court nomination of Neil Gorsuch. And he ended the process with his mind still ajar, flapping in the breeze. By the time he announced his opposition to Gorsuch, his vote made no difference.
Ironically, King decided against supporting the nominee because he felt he wasn’t independent enough. By which he meant he suspected Gorsuch harbored actual opinions about things. Definitely not his kind of guy. If King had his druthers, the vacancy on the court wouldn’t get filled at all, because no matter who got nominated, sooner or later they’d have to decide something. Can’t have that.
Repealing Obamacare and replacing it with a Republican alternative? King had concerns, which, he would be quick to note, are not the same as opinions. Concerns are, you know, vaguer. “Making coverage more affordable and more accessible should be our shared goal,” he told the Lewiston Sun Journal, “but [the GOP] bill never came close to accomplishing that. I have long said the Affordable Care Act needs to be fixed, and I am prepared to work with those who are interested in improving it, along with our health care system.”
When President Trump decided to launch cruise missiles at a Syrian military installation earlier this month, King told the Portland Press Herald, he was sorta OK with that, but he also sorta had reservations. “The Syrian civil war is horribly complex, incredibly dangerous and damaging,” he said, “and to enter into that war on one side or the other would be very difficult for us to find the right place to be engaged.”
King has a 67 percent approval rating, according to the latest Morning Consult poll, which should make him a shoo-in for re-election next year. But so far, he seems to be approaching that task as if it involved cleaning up a steaming dump deposited in the Capitol rotunda by a regenerated T-Rex. He hasn’t raised much money. He hasn’t responded to criticism from potential opponents. He appears to be relying on his folksy charm to overcome his glaring lack of an agenda. Suggested campaign slogan: Angus is more or less in favor of whatever you’re in favor of. Probably.
This approach worked back in the 1990s, when he won two races for governor, and it even carried over to his Senate bid five years ago. But times have changed. Challengers such as GOP state Sen. Eric Brakey of Auburn and Republican Gov. Paul LePage aren’t shy about discussing their platforms in blunt terms that resonate with a sizeable portion of the electorate. Voters will know where they stand.
That could make it more obvious that King doesn’t stand for much of anything.