Remember the big fight over RGGI? You know, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative?

You shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t.

If you weren’t in the backroom negotiations between the energy producers and the environmental community in 2007, you would have missed it.

Back then, joining with neighboring states to create a cap-and-trade system that would lower carbon emissions over time was a logical response to a looming crisis.

In the last days of the George W. Bush administration, there was bipartisan movement in Congress to pass something similar on a national level. It was the kind of incremental step toward a widely shared goal that people considered normal back then.

Could the same bill pass today? Maybe, but it wouldn’t be easy. The Maine Republican Party is good for an email blast about anything the Democrats do, so it’s not hard to imagine their reaction to a “tax-and-spend” approach to achieving their “radical climate-change agenda.”

I’m supposed to deliver a talk this weekend at the Senior College at the University of Maine at Augusta, and my assigned topic is “Our Divided Politics.”

It’s an article of faith these days to believe that we have never been so polarized, even though history tells us that it can’t be true. We had a civil war, after all, which is about as polarized as you can get.

Riots in Detroit, Newark and Watts were witnessed by people who are still alive today.

So were the politically motivated murders of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, Medgar Evers and three little girls in a Birmingham church.

We can’t be as polarized as people were back then, could we?

But clearly something has changed.

In Maine, you don’t have to go back to some long-ago Golden Age of civility to remember when state government functioned on deal-making and compromise.

Twenty years ago, we had an independent governor, a Democratic Maine House and an evenly divided Maine Senate with Democrats and Republicans sharing the presidency. There was plenty of fighting, but the government didn’t dissolve into a dysfunctional goo.

The Democrats had unified control during the Baldacci years, but still managed to get bipartisan support for their biggest agenda items.

Dirigo Health, an ambitious health reform law that anticipated the Affordable Care Act, passed with two-thirds support in 2003.

No one got entirely what they wanted, but the bill’s backers had a completely rational expectation that they would be able to get back in and fix the program in the future if problems emerged.

Instead, the whole program was scrapped in 2011 when Republicans took control in Augusta, and they passed their own sweeping health care reform. That in turn was wiped out by the ACA, passed in Washington without a single Republican vote.

Putting aside for a moment which policy is the best approach, most of us would agree that starting over every time a different party takes control is not good for the people who depend on these programs.

It’s not just the personalities that have changed. For some reason, our system no longer rewards politicians for being pragmatic and willing to compromise in the way it once did, and it no longer punishes them for being divisive.

The U.S. Senate is sitting on 400 bills that were passed by the House that will probably not get as much as a committee hearing before the next election. These bills deal with election security, prescription drug costs, gun control, climate change and other issues that a majority of Americans from both parties say they want to see addressed.

But, in the judgment of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, it’s not in the interests of his caucus to force his members to make what could be unpopular votes.

So instead of modifying the House Democrats ideas and searching for consensus, these bills will die between houses.

It’s easy to blame McConnell for obstruction (I do), but why should he put his majority at risk? What is the cost for him? He’s up for re-election this year. Do voters in his home state of Kentucky care?

Will they care in Colorado, Maine, Arizona, Georgia or any of the other states where a combination of Democratic victories in U.S. Senate races could put McConnell’s party in the minority?

Maine is a long way from Washington, but the same incentives are at work here.

And as we head into an election year, it’s worth asking why.


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