By Robert W. Glover, University of Maine
Earlier tonight, I received a call from my mother who lives in Massachusetts. Eventually, our conversation turned to recent comments allegedly made by our Governor Paul LePage in which he said that Obama “hates white people.” We talked about it for a while.
I told her that the unfortunate thing about inflammatory comments such as this, is that they detract from real, meaningful political debates happening within our state. They push important issues out of the headlines as we collectively gravitate towards the blowback from LePage’s latest gaffe. And the media too often follows suit, at both a national and local level. LePage’s most recent comments are now bouncing around the echo chamber of political geekdom: Politico, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Daily Kos, and so on, and so on. My mother had apparently caught this news on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews.
For the most part, media outlets portray the Governor as a divisive figure with a “long history” of controversial remarks, and virtually no record of apologizing for such statements. They use words like “blunt” and “unconventional.” They portray LePage as sometimes not thinking carefully before he speaks, or not “mincing words.” However, as I thought about it, I began to wonder if this is true.
LePage has made so many headline-grabbing statements over the last few years that perhaps we ought to question whether the man simply has no filter. This seems particularly the case when we consider the timing of these statements.
What I am suggesting is that perhaps we’re all suckers. Maybe this is not merely a gaffe-prone politician with a penchant for saying inflammatory things every time he opens his mouth. Maybe this is astute political strategy employed to re-direct media attention away from the substance of important policy issues, or the sting of recent political defeats. If so, the media (and by extension, we) have been played. I submit for your consideration, an inexhaustive list of LePage’s “weapons of mass distraction.”
WMD # 1: On August 12th, LePage is reported to have told GOP donors that President Obama “hates white people.” One week later, the Portland Press Herald picks up the story and two Republican lawmakers confirm the comment but remain anonymous, fearing political reprisal.
Why Maybe We’re All Suckers: On the very same day that this story hits the press, a dozen prominent Republicans resign from the party, openly criticizing LePage on numerous counts in their letter of resignation. It looks bad for LePage. It looks equally bad for new GOP Chairman Rick Bennett. But before we can think too much about what this means, it gets swept aside later in the day by LePage’s gaffe.
WMD # 2: On June 20th of this year, LePage makes his now infamous “Vaseline” statements about Senator Troy Jackson at the State House using crude sexual metaphors and going on to say Jackson is “bad,” has “no brains” and a “black heart.”
Why Maybe We’re All Suckers: This explosion came literally moments after the Governor had repeated his intention to veto the state budget painstakingly negotiated by lawmakers (a veto that was later overridden). The proposed budget eased the pain of LePage’s earlier proposal to suspend $200 million in municipal revenue sharing, and make deep cuts to social spending for low-income Maine residents. Again, we have an instance in which the political theatre occurring in the foreground distracts us from the significant policy decisions occurring in the background.
WMD # 3: On February 14th, 2013 the Governor’s office releases a photo of Paul LePage proudly displaying his concealed weapons permit (one he had tweeted a few days earlier). The next day, Lepage submits emergency legislation, later passed by the Legislature, to keep all information about those with concealed carry permits private. This was in response to an earlier Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the Bangor Daily News to law enforcement agencies and municipalities seeking the personal information of those with such permits.
Why Maybe We’re All Suckers: The pitched debate over access to weapons permits, particularly coming on the heels of the Sandy Hook massacre three months earlier, certainly resonated with the public. But, interestingly, just a day before the release of LePage’s photo, the Legislature’s Budget Writing Committee had delivered a direct rebuke to the Governor in its supplemental budget. The proposal saved the state’s “Drugs for the Elderly Program,” which LePage had favored cutting, and nixed his proposal to cap general assistance funds to municipalities. The committee also rejected LePage’s proposals to make childless adults and those who are 19 and 20 years old ineligible for Medicaid. The budget overwhelmingly passed the House and Senate. LePage ended up allowing the budget to pass without his signature and sent a letter to the Legislature expressing “deep concerns” over the reduction in cuts.
This was a political defeat for LePage and one with deep and meaningful implications for many low-income Mainers. Yet the headlines, and public political discourse, were dominated by the fracas over gun rights—a battle that LePage played a direct role in constructing.
The list goes on. Remember LePage’s comment that the worst effect of the chemical BPA in our plastics would be that some women would develop “little beards?” Or his infamous statement that the NAACP could “kiss his butt?” Both of those statements came in the context of the gradual build-up and release of his first budget, which sought deep cuts in pensions and social services while extending millions in tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefitted the wealthiest Mainers.
The bottom line is this. Governor LePage is not a loose cannon. At the very least, if he is, those within his administration use his moments of “candor” as a devastatingly effective weapon of distraction. What we see is a continuous pattern of using the gaffe, the inflammatory remark, and various other political stunts to distract the people of Maine from important policy debates with serious economic implications.
What is more shocking is that media outlets and we, the general public, play LePage’s game and play it on his terms. The most politically responsible thing that we can all do is demand that childish political invective not become a distraction, and not disrupt our focus from public policy debates with implications too important to neglect.