Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell of Maine told an audience at the University of New England last night that technology has driven partisan gerrymandering to a new, dangerous level and decried recent Supreme Court rulings that encouraged big money to flow into politics, while making it harder to trace the sources of such big spending.
Mitchell appeared on Morning Edition live from Maine Public Radio’s Portland studios.
This transcript has been edited for clarity.
George Mitchell: Sixteen states initially led by California and Iowa are moving in the direction of trying to reduce partisanship in the redistricting that takes place every 10 years after the census. And I hope that that will spread to all or at least many more states because I think it’s a critical factor in contributing now to the dysfunction that we have in our Congress and the polarization in our society.
Maine Public host Irwin Gratz: What about the campaign finance rulings that we’ve seen from the courts?
Mitchell: The American political system has been corrupted by money. Not in the sense that individuals are taking overt bribes, but in the sense that members of Congress are now in a constant mad money chase as evidenced by public reporting on the subject over the past several years. It’s pretty widespread that they spend more and more time raising money and are increasingly responsive to their donors as opposed to their constituents. And I think that’s distorting the political process. I think what we need are reasonable restraints on campaign contributions and campaign spending. Unfortunately the Supreme Court, not just in Citizens United but in a series of decisions didn’t create the problem but has effectively inflamed it and opened the gates for much more money coming into the system just at the time when the transparency is declining. So neither you nor anyone else knows who gave what to whom last year because of the complicated and nonresponsive system that we now have.
Gratz: Given the court rulings recently, can this be solved through regular legislation or have we reached a point where we need a constitutional amendment to govern political spending?
Mitchell: Well because the Supreme Court now has said you can’t constitutionally regulate it, you would need, if this court remained, a constitutional amendment. But this court has changed what prior courts said. So a future court could change what this court said. And I think that’s really the most likely way it will occur although not in the immediate future given the current composition of the court.
Gratz: In your post-Senate life you’ve been called upon to resolve international disputes and I want to talk about a couple of those now. The United Nations this week approved some new economic sanctions against North Korea in an attempt to slow or stop its nuclear weapons program. Is that a productive next step do you think?
Mitchell: It’s probably the only course that’s available short of huge conflict and I don’t think there is a realistic military answer to this. Given the composition, geography of South Korea, North Korea, the possible death of many many large numbers of people if conflict does arise. Including a 100,000 Americans who now live in the area around Seoul, South Korea. Sanctions could have an effect. They haven’t so far been enough to pull them into negotiations. But I think ultimately sanctions and negotiations will be the only viable course although neither offers any real promise of productive discussion because the North Koreans simply can’t be trusted on either count. Nonetheless there would be no realistic military option. I think that’s the course that will be followed.
Gratz: You know some people I talked to are very worried about this and I guess I’m wondering, should they be?
Mitchell: Well I think it’s always worrisome when you have a leader as unstable and reckless as the leader of North Korea is and the constant back and forth of threats. No one knows when someone might make a catastrophic error. I think it’s unlikely that there will be a nuclear conflict or even any conflict, given the dynamics of the situation, but I think one has to be concerned when people like that are in a position of real power.
Gratz: Let me turn to a NATO ally, Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It’s been moving in recent years toward more authoritarian rule apparently for religious reasons. How should the U.S. be responding to that?
Mitchell: Well that’s a very difficult issue. The United States is the dominant world power. We have relations with almost every country in the world, about 190 of them, and many of them have governments that we would not prefer to have, we would never have on our own soil, but we deal with people as they are. Turkey has been a strong ally of the United States and it is disconcerting that they are moving in the direction of authoritarianism and also engaging in trying to play off one side against another with Iran and with Russia and so forth. I do think though that we have to do our best to maintain good relations. They are a strong nation, particularly in the Middle East they have significant influence, and try to encourage the government there. Really it’s one man who’s taking these actions and trying to establish authoritarian rule, and all of us have finite lifespans. So I don’t think we ought to make a permanent enemy of the country. They have been a good ally over a long period of time and I think we have to continue to work in that direction, difficult as it may be with the current leader.
Gratz: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday endorsed the idea of independence for the Kurds of northern Iraq. They are planning to hold a referendum on independence later this month. As someone who’s dealt in the Middle East before what do you think of those developments?
Mitchell: It’s moving in that direction. It’s been a very difficult issue for about 100 years. As you know, the Kurds made a huge effort at the Paris peace talks following the end of the first World War to establish a nation based on President Wilson’s 14 principles. They were rejected for pragmatic reasons, among them being that Kurds live in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. And of course all of those four countries don’t want an independent Kurdish government because that would mean part of their country. Every country would probably have the same reaction. But I do think the consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the reality that, in northern Iraq at least, an independent Kurdistan has been established means it is likely over time that there will be an independent Kurdistan, although I doubt that it will encompass geography from all four of the countries. More likely it’ll be concentrated in Iraq and that if people want to join that nation they will have to physically move from the other countries, because I don’t think it’s likely that Turkey or Iran will permit a large portion of their geography to be ceded to a separate country. Syria is a different story of course. It’s now chaos and devastation and no one knows quite how that will sort itself out when this fighting wears itself out.
Gratz: Let’s go back to domestic politics for a moment. You of course were a Democratic senator from Maine. Any advice for your party as it goes into next year’s congressional elections?
Mitchell: I think Democrats have historically been the party of economic growth, of job creation, of concern about average working Americans. I put it a more broad sense — it’s the party that has broken down barriers in our country, has opened doors of opportunity, has made certain to the extent possible that everyone in America has a fair chance to succeed. Ours is a society which no one should be guaranteed success but every single person should have a chance. And I think that’s what we ought to focus on: growth, economic opportunity and helping everybody to stand on their own two feet and go as high and as far as their talent and willingness to work will take them. That has been the historic role of the Democratic Party that I think is the key to success in the future as well.
Gratz: How well could Democrats do given some of the gerrymandering you’ve talked about earlier?
Mitchell: I think that Democrats will gain seats in the House of Representatives. I think it’s a tossup as to whether they’ll gain enough to become the majority. I think they’re likely also to gain slightly in the Senate that’s already very close, and again a tossup that they will gain control. I think as of now it’s certainly conceivable the Democrats could regain control of both bodies. It’s equally conceivable that they could fall just short but narrow the differences in both bodies. And I think that would depend upon many factors including the quality of the individual candidates who run for these positions across the country. National trends are important. The standing of the president is important. The level of the economy is important. But the quality of the individual candidates still makes a huge difference in American politics.