Even from this idyllic outpost you can hear the White House crowing over Ronald Reagan's historic 65 percent approval rating in the polls. The president, they say, will be able to draw down on a treasure trove of political capital in his confrontations with Congress this fall on everything from tax reform to sanctions against South Africa.
For their part, congressmen returning from summer recess don't sound as if they believe the president's political capital is, well, fungible. The next few weeks will tell us who's right.
I wouldn't bet heavily either way, but a relentlessly sodden turn in the weather here the other day sent me shopping for a pair of rubber boots. As a result, I am an instant expert on t least one of the big autumn issues: the president's "free trade" principles versus powerful pressures now building in Congress for protectionist trade practices.
What I discovered in searching for waterproof footwear is that Ronald Reagan may well be much beloved by the local folks. But Maine's depressed footware factories produce more shoes than those of any state in the nation. So native Mainers tend to think a lot about shoes in general, and to think poorly of the president's recent rejection of quotas or higher tariffs to protect the shrinking American shoe industry from foreign competition.
To see why, take the case of rubber boots. You find them in abundance in marine hardware stores supplying lobstermen and others who go to sea for a living, in the outdoors outfitters catering to hikers and campers and in the posh boutiques patronized by the well-heeled summer cottage trade. But you are hard put to find rubber boots that are both (a)competitively priced and (b)made in America.
Lord knows, I didn't want to be part of a problem that has doubled the U.S. trade deficit in the past two years, to an estimated $150 billion. But vacations are not cheap, and the clock was running. So I fetched up in a pair of black boots with fancy orange trim, bearing the brand name Weather-Rite and a stamp on the soles saying, "Made in China." Not that I didn't have exotic options. Within a 100-yard stretch of the main street of this tiny hamlet, I could have been booted by Brazilians, South Koreans, Malaysians or the French.
Now that's not exactly a scientific sample, but it makes a point: when shoe outlets in the shoe-making capital of the country are pushing foreign shoes, you have to believe that the danger to the American shoe industry is clear and present. The victims -- the owners of shut-down factories and the idled workers -- are not going to be put off lightly with lofty talk about "free trade." Still less are they likely to be gratified by the administration's preemptive strike last week against the congressional protectionists. The legal action the president promised against foreigners who have thrown up unfair trade barriers to American exporters dealing in tobacco, insurance or canned fruit does nothing directly for American shoe manufacturers or for most of the other industries (textiles, autos, electronics, you name it) menaced by imports from abroad.
The political practicality as well as the high principles at stake in the trade issue were well summed up in a recent editorial in the Maine Sunday Telegram: "Viewed dispassionately, the decision not to reimpose tariffs on imported shoes is defensible," the Telegram allowed magnanimously. "Import barriers are extremely costly to consumers, generally prove ineffective and invite retaliatory revenge from abroad." The editorial went so far as to say that American shoes will never be competitive with inexpensive imports and that the industry should probably confine itself to speciality items.
"OK," the Telegram went on, "now try telling that to one of the 6,100 Maine shoe workers who have lost their jobs since 1981 to a flow of shoe imports or try telling shoe wokers in their mid-50's they'd be better off being retrained in another line of work."
Right there lies the difference between the problems of a second-term president and those of a member of Congress up for reelection next year. The president can talk in terms of threats or promises -- the good things that will flow from free trade and the bad things that will happen if the United States goes the protectionist route. But the Maine congressional delegation has to deal with the actuality of alien rubber boots putting Maine's bootmakers out of work.
White House claims to the contrary, the "free trade" issue is going to put the president's vaunted political pulling power to a heavy test.