Theodore Roosevelt, the trust-busting progressive populist Republican commander in chief, once averred that he was fond of an adage he said was based on an African proverb: “Speak softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far.”

That saying, whether a proverb or not, became indicative of his approach as president: He generally favored peaceful negotiations, but he wanted to have the ability to counter with military force if necessary. That same approach can, and ought to be, applied to domestic politics and governing at all levels, not just abandoned as a relic of Roosevelt’s foreign policy ambitions.

Maine Republicans, of late, seem inclined to take the opposite approach: yelling loudly but arriving completely empty-handed. They’ve shown a great willingness to offer criticism, but a great inability to ever do much about it, making them an ineffective opposition.

We saw this most recently with the biennial budget, when Republicans in Augusta screamed and yelled about the Democrats’ budget but didn’t really do anything about it. Since the budget was passed on a non-emergency basis, Republicans could have taken out papers to begin collecting signatures for a people’s veto of the budget. It would have been difficult to get those signatures, to be sure, but they didn’t even bother to try. They not only failed to threaten a people’s veto, so far they’ve gone right back to work like nothing happened at all. It’s exactly this sort of non-reaction that Democrats expected from the Maine Republican Party, and it’s why there’s every reason to expect that they’ll keep governing on a strictly partisan basis whenever they need to: They know Republicans won’t do anything about it.

Now, a big part of the reason that no people’s veto of the budget ever materialized is that the Maine Republican Party lacks the infrastructure to support such an effort. While those on the left have shown a remarkable ability to quickly collect signatures for both citizens initiatives and people’s vetoes, conservatives haven’t had much success with that in recent years.

The latest example of this was the failure of an effort to bar non-citizens from voting to get on the ballot, but it’s just the most recent failure. While Republicans just barely managed to get enough signatures to force a people’s veto of ranked-choice voting in presidential elections on the 2020 ballot, that effort was ultimately unsuccessful. Although conservatives seem to loathe ranked-choice voting, it hasn’t proven to be an animating issue for most Maine voters, who have twice supported the vote-counting system.

If one were generous, one could say that the Maine Republican Party was simply pandering to its base with its quixotic opposition to ranked-choice voting, but those efforts took away resources from the party’s other responsibilities, like electing Republican candidates. They also alienated a wide swath of voters.

It’s easy to forget now, but Republicans haven’t always been so haphazard and ineffective when it comes to referenda. A little over a decade ago, they not only got enough signatures to place the people’s veto of then-Gov. John Baldacci’s tax changes on the June 2010 ballot but also won the campaign. It helped energize a whole generation of grassroots activists who later that year helped the Maine Republican Party retake the Blaine House and the Maine Legislature.

Unfortunately, while that same type of conservative grassroots enthusiasm helped elect Paul LePage and win the 2nd Congressional District for Donald Trump, it didn’t lead to any further successful people’s vetoes or citizen initiatives. If it had, then Democrats in Augusta wouldn’t have so blithely steamrolled a partisan budget through, since Republicans might have been able to actually mount an effective response. Instead, it would seem for now that the entire response of Republican leadership in the Legislature to the budget is a few news releases.

This has similarly hobbled them in the response to Gov. Mills’ use of her emergency powers during the pandemic. They can introduce bills to curtail those powers, but with Democrats in the majority, those proposals are just fodder for news releases. If they were serious about ending the state of emergency or reining in Mills’ powers, they would have started collecting signatures for a citizen initiative to do so. Similar efforts have happened in other states – California Gov. Gavin Newsom may be recalled, for instance – but not here.

If Maine Republicans want to start winning elections again, they need to find a way to inspire their grassroots to re-engage – and not just during election years. That’s their only path toward stopping Maine from becoming a one-party state.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:
[email protected]
Twitter: jimfossel

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