Our differences should not divide us

Almost 200 years ago, the sturdy souls who founded the state of Maine settled on a state slogan, “Dirigo,” which means “I lead.” Now the state is leading by example by sending to Washington an avowed independent and moderate. In doing so, they are sending out a call to action to the country. Their message is simple: they are tired of the political divisions that are keeping us from solving real problems. They want no more of politicians whose main purpose seems to be to divide us instead of unite us. The people of Maine have said enough; this far and no farther. 

Like Americans all across the country, they hunger for listening instead of lecturing, compromise instead of confrontation and solutions instead of slogans. They don’t care who gets the credit and they don’t care who wins or loses from one year to the next. What they do care about is attaining a strong economy, a fair solution to the debt crisis, a strong defense, care for our veterans, schools that work and a democracy that isn’t controlled by the few.

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I’m convinced that growing numbers across the country agree with the people of my small state. They want real change. Not the kind of change that comes from two combatants fighting until one succumbs, but the change that comes from people with strong positions finding new solutions to age-old differences. 

John Kennedy put it best when he said: “Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.”

I’m optimistic about our chance to make a difference in the current state of American politics. That optimism springs from knowing that in times of crisis — which include our own time — Americans have always found a way to come closer together for the greater good. In my state, after a particularly damaging ice storm that left two-thirds of our citizens without power, we reached out to neighbors we never knew. In the aftermath of the terrible morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the entire country came together as seldom before. And over the last few weeks, the hurricane and nor’easter that crashed ashore in New Jersey made improbable allies of an embattled governor and his politically opposite president.

Our challenge, now, is to move a bit closer to the center, to solutions, to civility, to mutual respect. We can and do have differences, which can be a strength that leads to better ideas and more effective solutions, but the country can no longer afford the luxury of difference for the sake of difference or argument for the sake of argument. 

I look forward to forging partnerships with senators of both parties who agree that the problems the country faces require a new spirit of cooperation and compromise. I will work, as I always have, with people of good will who want to move together toward practical solutions to our nation’s problems. 

I come to the Senate inspired by the many great leaders that my state has sent before me: Margaret Chase Smith, who stood up against the extremism of her day to challenge Joseph McCarthy; Ed Muskie, who was able to secure unanimous Senate support for the Clean Water Act in 1970; George Mitchell, who led the Senate so ably and then helped the people of Ireland to find peace; and today’s senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, who have worked tirelessly for Maine and the nation to find common ground. 

At a time of even worse divisions than those we now face, a young lawyer fresh from the plains came to Washington and pleaded with his fellow countrymen to lay aside their differences in service to the country. Unfortunately, those words fell largely on deaf ears and it took a terrible war to prove him right. But his words still ring true today, and provide a guide to all of us as we set about the important work before us. At the conclusion of his first inaugural, here is what Abraham Lincoln said: “I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

King, an independent, is the senator-elect from Maine.