PORTLAND – Like most Americans, former U.S. Sen. George J. Mitchell said, he tends to look at the past through rose-tinted glasses.

But even with that in mind, partisanship in Washington wasn’t as bad when he was in the Senate as it is now, Mitchell said Wednesday morning.

Mitchell said the structure of the political system leads to the heightened partisan atmosphere — and that’s responsible for the record low approval rate of 9 percent for Congress in a recent poll.

“It’s worse now than it’s ever been,” Mitchell said, but don’t expect anyone in Washington to come up with a solution unless the public demands it.

“As long as they (voters) tolerate it, even though they complain about it, it will continue,” he told the audience at the Portland Community Chamber’s “Eggs & Issues” breakfast.

Mitchell, who served in the Senate from Maine from 1980 to early 1995, said the roots of the intense partisanship are in the House, where redistricting has eliminated most competitive seats. With one party in control of a district, he said, the primary election to pick a party’s candidate becomes more important than the general election. And extremists in each party, he said, wield disproportionate power in primaries because those elections have much lower voter turnout than general elections.

Mitchell said it will likely take a major scandal — possibly revolving around campaign finance, which he said is also a problem — to make voters mad enough to demand change.

Mitchell also spoke about the importance of education, not only because college graduates tend to make more money than those without degrees. He said there are so many cable channels and niche publications now that most people tend to look for sources of information that reinforce their points of view. Education, he said, makes people more willing to listen to opposing viewpoints.

Mitchell, who was President Obama’s special enjoy to the Mideast from early 2009 until this past May, also said both Palestinians and Israelis would benefit from peace negotiations, but it will likely take more time for them to realize it.

He joked that his efforts as envoy were summed up by his wife after he returned from one of his last trips to the region.

“She said, ‘Welcome back. The expectations were zero and you met them,” Mitchell said. He said that makes him wish for peace not just for its own sake.

“I want to be able to go to my wife and say, ‘You spoke too soon,’” Mitchell said.

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at [email protected]