Palin, Olympia Snowe Battle for State of America

Nov. 24 (Bloomberg) — It is beginning to look like Olympia Snowe will vote for the Democratic health-care legislation. The support of the Republican senator from Maine is crucial because it will enable the Democrats to depict an essentially left-wing bill as bipartisan and centrist.

Fellow Republicans are furious. What's wrong with this anti-Palin? They note that Susan Collins, the other Republican senator from Maine, seems to be standing by her party. Doesn't Snowe understand the importance of freedom?

No, is the answer. At least not the kind of freedom that libertarians in Wyoming or Alaska are describing when they use that word. Sarah Palin may have pointed to similarities between Maine and frontier states during the 2008 campaign — "I feel like I am at home because I see the Carhartts and the steel-toed boots" she said in Bangor, Maine. Snowe, however, isn't "rogue," but rather a public servant. If she or Collins vote with Democrats, they do so because they are responding to the concerns of their constituents.

Political commentator Michael Barone summed up the dueling tendencies in American culture in the title of his 2004 book, "Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future." Maine has historically been one of our harder states, as anyone who has stared out on the cold blue waters of Penobscot Bay in October can attest.

But in terms of day-to-day life, Maine is shifting. It used to be a conservative state that led a relatively conservative country. "As Maine goes, so goes the nation," ran the old line. In 1936, however, Maine stayed conservative when every other state but one, neighboring Vermont, voted for the Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Falling Behind

Soon after, Maine fell behind. And stayed behind. Old industries such as textiles or furniture-making faded, and none took their place. Today half of Maine college graduates who work in business or technology do so outside of the state's borders.

Maine also is one of the poorer states in the nation. Mainers want benefits and know how to collect them. The federally funded Children's Health Insurance Program, which subsidizes health care for poor children, spent $31 million in Maine in Fiscal 2007, compared with $11 million in neighboring New Hampshire, which has about the same population.

Maine's seniors are especially poor, and spend lots of energy accessing federal programs: in 2005, a full 41 percent of Maine seniors on Medicare were also on Medicaid, the highest rate of so-called duals in the nation.

State Health Care

A public option for health care dressed up as a free-market reform? Maine already has that, in the form of DirigoChoice, under which taxes on the private sector were levied to pay for insurance for the undercovered. It turned out the tax revenue was far from sufficient to cover the uninsured. The principal outcome has been higher premiums everywhere and still significant numbers of people without insurance.

Paying for all this government involvement has been expensive. The Mercatus Center, a markets-oriented think tank at George Mason University, ranked Maine 48 out 50 states when it comes to fiscal and tax freedom, and 50th when it comes to regulatory freedom. Over time — the time period since Snowe was first elected to Congress, in 1978 — the state has only become more progressive, and more expensive.

Maine is near the top of the list, rather than the bottom, when it comes to Mercatus's "personal freedom" measure, ranking No. 2 among states for its liberal treatment of medical marijuana, gaming, and the use of firearms. One can see this contrast in rank as a negative for the Pine Tree state. Mainers have many rights, but not so many responsibilities.

Defensive Work

What would give Maine confidence to grow again? To rip up the tax code and reshape it to match that of states that ranked high when it came to economic freedom. But the state's political leaders seem to have made a decision — defensive work is all right, but it's late for aggressive moves like that. Collins and even, at least conceivably, Snowe may vote against the Democratic legislation, but they will never lead the necessary charge for a Reagan revolution in Maine.

Other states may not be so different. Palin's state, or Wyoming, has a "soft" benefit that allows it the luxury of looking hard in the form of revenue from mineral resources. The inflows make budget balancing in Alaska or Wyoming look like child's play compared with Maine's work. Alaska, for example, gets plenty of pork from Washington, hardly a trait you'd expect in the Palin states.

The division between Snowe, more inclined to the bill, and Collins, less inclined, mirrors the national division. On balance, the pro-government side in Maine seems to be prevailing. Maybe Republicans will stick with Collins, and defend the status quo. Or they will emulate Snowe, and start acting more like Democrats. Either way, the truism is true again: As Maine goes, so goes the nation.

(Amity Shlaes, senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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