Tea-party backed Governor Paul Le Page has sure grabbed headlines since taking office. He recently made the Colbert Report and Daily Show (not his first mentions on either) for the removal of a “pro-labor” mural from the Department of Labor. “Where are the bosses?” he asked, claiming that “both sides” should be honored by a mural. When told there may be protesters he said he’d “laugh at the idiots.” Now it appears Maine might have to repay $60,000 of federal funds used for the mural if it isn’t displayed; is this the best way to spend Maine’s tax dollars?
Le Page has made some solid arguments about the problems facing Maine, and a switch of the Governorship and legislature to the GOP is not a bad thing. Good democratic governance requires transfers of power to keep ideas fresh, leaders on their toes, and assure accountability.
Le Page’s comments and his brusque anti-labor pro-business approach to regulations, the environment and taxes had already aroused Maine’s democratic base. Yet the Republicans have a chance to show they can govern and make reforms the Democrats had been unable to make. Fearing that the Governor’s rhetoric and attitude threaten that, some of Maine’s top Republican lawmakers co-signed an op-ed entitled “Tired of Diversions from Government by disrespect.” In the piece they criticize Governor Le Page and call for a more civil dialogue.
They are careful to note that they are not opposed to Le Page’s policies. I saw him speak on campus last week, a guest of adjunct professor Tom Saviello, a Republican State Senator and one of the co-signatories on the op-ed. The governor defended his positions in a rational manner, using humor (often self-deprecating) well. There were numerous points I disagreed with, but I also found he made sense on others. He refrained from the kind of outburst that makes the news, and even looked rather dignified when a protester — an older woman, obviously not a UMF student — snuck in (it was not an open event) and yelled “tax the rich!” She was removed, and in contrast students asked polite but often very critical questions about Le Page’s policies. Political discourse as it should be.
The letter displays a desire to keep the Maine tradition of respectful disagreement. It condemns the idea that opponents should be belittled, ridiculed or mocked. That isn’t the tradition of Maine politics, nor does it reflect how the two parties have done business over the years. People of diverse opinions should be given respect; politics is about debate and compromise. The Governor’s outbursts give red meat to the tea partiers, which may be fine in an election, but actually undermine his position when he’s governing a state. He won the election with 39% of the vote as the opposition was divided (both to his left), the politics of governing require more than appeasing the base.
Le Page is also not a career politician, he’s been a ‘boss,’ meaning he’s used to being able to say what he wants and not worrying much about the consequences. While some think it’s refreshing to hear such blunt ‘off the cuff’ language, many Republicans believe it is pushing independents into the Democratic camp and risking a severe backlash in 2012. Le Page isn’t up for re-election then, but many Republicans fear losing their legislative majorities (just won last year). Moreover, I think they are motivated by a personal desire to see civility in state government. Let Wisconsin have the legacy of Joe McCarthy, Maine has Margaret Chase Smith (the first Republican Senator to actively denounce McCarthy).
The state of Maine isn’t in crisis, but as an aging state with recession induced budget shortfalls and too much debt, there are challenges. Each party has policies reflecting not just ideas but also interests. The Republicans and Democrats both have to avoid angering groups that support them. That’s what makes compromise so important, it’s a way for the two sides to break with core interest groups but with cover — ‘we’d have liked to do more but this is the best we could do.’
In the rest of the country it appears a kind of political pathology has overcome people – it is seen as somehow virtuous and “principled” to refuse to compromise and to see politics as a kind of ideological jihad rather than a way to solve problems by considering a variety of opinions. Compromise is derided as weak, moderates are seen as “unable to decide.” Such a position is a perversion of politics, one dangerous to democracy. It’s emotion trumping reason, with people often taking their positions on issues via cues from the political media.
Maine has stood out with leaders both in Washington and at home who defy that attitude with a pragmatic common sense disregard for rigid ideology. This has been due to people on both sides of the aisle showing respect and recognizing they all want what’s best for the state and their communities. Governor Le Page’s style has put that in jeopardy. The Republican op-ed ends with confidence that Le Page will shift tone and move forward. He and the Republicans have an opportunity to show Maine what their ideas might mean for the state. The Governor will only hurt himself and his party if he can’t find a way to adjust to the demands of his office.