Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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Time to ask what this man thinks

By Nancy Grape
Maine Sunday Telegram November 19, 2006

Voters rearranged government at the state and federal levels this month. But they left many intriguing questions unanswered. Let's look at two of them a dozen days after the voting.

One centers on the Iraq War, which voters made clear is the dominant issue on our American calendar. The other arises in Maine.

It centers on the man who, since Nov. 7, has been widely assessed in editorials, blogs, columns and letters to the editor as the Republican who would-a, should-a, might-a been governor.

"For those who said that I would be, I think they're underestimating that challenge," State Sen. Peter Mills, R-Somerset, told me lightly, moments after the Maine Senate's Republican caucus wrapped up Tuesday in Augusta.

Mills primarily wanted to talk about the caucus and the legislative agenda ahead. But I pressed the 63-year-old legislator to talk first about his own plans.

After losing his party's primary in June, is Mills, a moderate, interested in saddling up for a new Blaine House race in 2010?

"I always say yes when somebody asks me that question," Mills told me. "And as long as I haven't embarrassed myself in the next three years, I might want to get into that again."


Don't be fooled by any tentativeness in that answer. Mills, whose conversation snaps and pops like fireworks, is eager to tackle legislative issues in January, but he's also looking intently at what he could yet do as governor.

"If I win and get booted out when I'm 71," the Skowhegan lawyer suggested, "I can always go home and chop wood, or something."

Taking advantage of the moment, however, I asked Mills about the Iraq question that intrigued me. It arose in a recent column by George Will on the nomination of Robert Gates for secretary of defense. And it involved Gates' experience in 1991 as deputy national security adviser to the current president's father.

"Gates knows why the first President Bush declined to extend Operation Desert Storm beyond the liberation of Kuwait to regime change in Baghdad," Will reported.

Indeed, Will declared, a key member of the Cabinet at the time had dismissed arguments for going to Baghdad as "fallacious." Then he quoted the Cabinet member directly.

"Once you've got Baghdad, it's not clear what you do with it," he told The New York Times. "It's not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that's currently there now. Is it going to be a Shia regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Baathists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundamentalists?

"How much credibility is that government going to have if it's set up by the United States military when it's there? How long does the United States military have to stay to protect the people that sign on for that government, and what happens to it once we leave?"

Prescient? You bet. Potent? Yes to that too. And the Cabinet member giving that assessment? The man who was then defense secretary -- Dick Cheney.

"Good gravy!" Mills responded.

Neither the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, nor shaky intelligence on weapons of mass destruction explains how Cheney's impressive assessment of war in Iraq under the first President Bush could be transformed into support for the war conducted by the second. It remains a lingering question.

Meanwhile, Mills looks at the Middle East and brings up a name that doesn't get much airing in politics these days.

"I think voters want a foreign policy in the mold of Richard Nixon -- the man who went to China," he said. "We need someone to go to Syria and Iran. Get back into the Henry Kissinger shuttle diplomacy. I believe George Bush will do that. I think this guy does not want to go down in the history books on the page we're reading now."

Once again, our conversation turns closer to home and to his hopes for the session ahead.

"The Senate," Mills said, "has to lead the way, rebuilding the Republican Party in a new image."

"I'm happy to be in the Senate," Mills said thoughtfully. "I woke up on the morning of June 14 (the day after the Republican primary) and one of the first things that came to me was, 'Thank God, I don't have to write a budget for the State of Maine for the first of January.'"


One by one he lists the knotty financial questions piling up on Maine and the lack of easy fixes to address them.

"There are at least three major studies calling for dramatic changes in how we manage K-12 education," he said, citing that issue as one he'll focus on immediately.

Mills is doggedly hopeful. He likes the moderation he saw in the Senate's Republican caucus at a time when Democrats control that chamber by a single vote.

"There's a complexion to this Republican caucus that I have not seen in the 12 years I've been here, Mills told me. "To find something like it, I have to go back 30 years. There are 17 folks in the caucus and I'd say you could characterize 11 of them as more moderate."

"The problem now," Mills summed up, "is that there's nobody here who remembers that time. I'm 63 and I sort of got it by osmosis."

Let's hope the Bush-to-Bush presidencies can "get it" by osmosis as well.

Nancy Grape comments on state and national issues for the Maine Sunday Telegram.