Missing a great debate

BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett.

BDN photo by Troy R. Bennett.

Who said what about whom? What candidate is lying about the other candidate? What parties are nervous about which candidates? What debates will be attended by whom and why? Who is nice? Who is mean? Who is competent, and who is dumb?

These are the questions those of us in Maine political circles are asking this year. What a wasted opportunity.

Maine elections have, historically at least, been rather dull affairs. Cordial candidates who occupy the general middle of the political spectrum would spar amiably over some of the minor pet issues they may have disagreed on before Maine people decided that they simply liked one candidate more than the other.

This is, of course, the entire basis of the career of Angus King.

But this year, Maine people have a chance to have a real debate about issues. And as more time slips away, we are losing our chance to have those conversations, because of the increasing inanity of the campaign season.

Gov. Paul LePage is a solid, principled conservative leader. He is aggressive, he is confrontational, he is combative, and he is rightly obsessed with making hard decisions for the general welfare of the people of Maine. He occupies a space rarely seen by Republicans in elections in Maine.

U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud is, at least as of today, a somewhat radical liberal candidate. This can be confusing to some, as he masqueraded as a moderate Blue Dog Democrat for most of his career, but even a passing glance at his stated plans for Maine will tell you that his administration would not be shy about expanding welfare, spending hundreds of millions more dollars in our budget, and doing the bidding of labor unions.

And then there is Eliot Cutler, a wonky and intelligent, if somewhat dry, left-leaning independent candidate. There can be no question as to his staunch liberalism on many issues, but every once in a while you can actually hear some conservative perspective creep into speeches and policy proposals, especially on fiscal matters. All of which evaporates, of course, when he starts talking about Medicaid expansion. But I digress.

The point being, we have three candidates who represent three very different paths for the people of Maine. A conservative vision, a liberal vision and a supposed third way.

These people are not sitting down at a table and agreeing with each other. Ask them what to do about welfare, Medicaid expansion, public sector unions, taxes, spending and several other issues and you will get a real and genuine disagreement among all three.

That is what this campaign should be about. Ideas. Vision. Competing paths for Maine to chart forward.

I suppose, though, that it isn’t surprising that the campaign hasn’t been about the issues.

The record and agenda of the LePage administration happens to be a popular one with Mainers. Whether it is job creation, lower unemployment, welfare reform, paying back debt, or cutting taxes, most of his actual record has the support of a strong majority of Mainers. That is likely why the governor is the only one who seems to have attempted to run on issues at this point.

Faced with that, the other candidates have decided that their only path to winning is a scorched earth attack on the governor on a more personal level and, as such, have refused to engage on issues. Hard to blame them, I suppose, but disappointing none the less.

But it does beg the question: If the leftist agenda is such a positive thing for the state of Maine, why am I not seeing Michaud blanket the airwaves with arguments for trade protectionism, growth in the power of unions, higher taxes, more spending, expanded welfare, and the rest of his priorities?

Instead I get a regurgitation of the “I worked in a mill” theme, accompanied by straw man arguments against his opponents that were so egregiously false that they almost derailed the only debates we were going to be able to have.

Additionally, why am I not seeing Cutler position himself as the serious, sober statesman who has ideas that are better than LePage and Michaud? Instead, I am treated to Cutler standing on a stage complaining to two empty podiums about there not being enough debates. You have my attention, Eliot, if they won’t debate you, tell me what you believe in.

The 2014 election is going to be a turnout election, and the motivating factor on all sides will be the strong ideological bend of the candidates. Mainers have a unique chance this year to see three candidates step into an arena of ideas, and those candidates should fight tooth and nail about those ideas and let that decide the race.

This kind of election doesn’t happen a lot. I sincerely wish the candidates make the best of it.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.