I’ve been waiting for Rick Bennett to speak up.

The chairman of the Maine Republican Party has been silent through a series of intolerant comments made by members of his party, from presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who wants to spy on and shut down American Muslims’ places of worship, to wacky state Rep. Larry Lockman, who called a Chinese-American political candidate “an anti-Christian bigot” and someone who “hates Christians and hates Americans.”

We finally heard from Bennett last week.

“The purpose of such heated, overblown rhetoric is of course to shout down a substantive and helpful public debate …” Bennett said in a news release issued by his party. “There was a time in Maine when reasonable political leaders and journalists understood that a real threat must be met by a united front …”

I totally agree, except his comments were not aimed at Trump, or Lockman, or state Sen. Michael Willette – who was caught publishing anti-Muslim Facebook rants – or state Rep. John J. Picchiotti, who was caught doing the same thing last month.

No, Bennett’s pique was raised by an editorial in this newspaper, which criticized Gov. Paul LePage for promising to block the entry of Syrian refugees into Maine and certain Republican presidential candidates, who consider being Muslim a suspicious activity. Our criticism, according to Bennett, was a step too far.

“In a pattern that has become far too familiar, Democrats and liberals in the press have taking to name-calling and slander when confronted with policy differences from Republicans,” Bennett said in the release. “When Gov. LePage and GOP presidential candidates rightly point out the failures of our national immigration policy, they are labeled ‘bigots’ and ‘intolerant.’ ”

So, Bennett won’t tolerate our intolerance of their intolerance? Thanks for the clarification.

Let’s review what Bennett is willing to tolerate.

Two days after the Paris attacks, Gov. LePage issued a written statement that essentially said that Syrians can’t be trusted. “To bring Syrian refugees into our country without knowing who they are is to invite an attack on American soil just like the one we saw in Paris last week and in New York City on 9/11,” the governor said.

Substitute the name of any racial, religious or national group for the word “Syrian” and you see the problem. Calling people a threat to life and property by virtue of the country from which they come is what we meant by inciting “panic and fear.”

And applying a religious test – allowing authorities to take in only refugees who can “prove” they are Christian – as presidential contender Jeb Bush advocates, is what we meant by “an un-American comfort with religious bigotry.”

As for Trump, he has made far worse anti-Muslim statements than the ones the editorial criticized, and that is doing him no harm in polls of Republican primary voters.

But Bennett has been quiet.

“It’s not my role as the chairman of the party to comment on and pass judgment on every asinine statement that a Republican in Maine may make and, frankly, it’s not my role to hyperventilate about every outrageous thing a Democrat may say, either,” Bennett explained after Lockman’s comments came to light.

Bennett’s job is to build a party. In a forward-looking moment after last year’s big Election Day win, Bennett mused that he viewed LePage as a Republican Ed Muskie, whose leadership ushered in 40 years of dominance for his party. The party dominance part might come true, but there is not much else linking the two figures.

Muskie would never have taken pride in taking food assistance and medical care away from people in need, as LePage has done. And the environmental pioneer Muskie would never have put the brakes on a land conservation program supported by overwhelming majorities of voters.

And Muskie, who served in the Senate in the 1960s and voted for all the landmark civil rights bills, would not have tried to stir up his state’s fear of outsiders the way that LePage has done with asylum-seeking immigrants from Africa and now refugees from Syria.

You have to wonder what kind of party Bennett will end up building. This is the season for recruiting candidates to fill vacancies in the Legislature. As the party gets identified with things other than smaller government and lower taxes, how many moderates are going to want to sign on?

And if it’s not Bennett’s job to speak up when someone in his party says something “asinine,” whose job is it? When Republicans go this far off track, Republican voices are needed to show that the criticism isn’t motivated by partisanship.

Being silent about Trump and the others is a form of endorsement. And the longer Bennett stays quiet, the clearer it will be where the party stands.


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