CHEBEAGUE ISLAND – The outrage, hand-wringing or embarrassment that usually follow Gov. Paul LePage’s verbal assaults on targets as varied as reporters, President Obama, the NAACP or even fellow Republicans usually miss the point of this political theater.
The most recent flap arose from reports that LePage, at a private fundraiser, declared that President Obama “hates white people.” LePage now says he “never said that.”
Whether he did or not is beside the point, especially to his tea party supporters. For them it’s the kind of blunt talk they enjoy hearing, and typical of the macho talk employed by other tea party politicians across the country.
Think of Sarah Palin’s mantra to her “mama grizzlies”: “Don’t retreat — reload!” or Texas Gov. Rick Perry threatening secession. And the many verbal bombs thrown by Michele Bachmann to gain national attention and, not incidentally, raise tons of money from the hard right. Of course these tea party incendiaries never pushed the envelope of crude rhetoric as far as Maine’s governor.
LePage’s well-known hardscrabble personal history of living on the streets for several years when a youngster surely forms part of the background of his tough-guy persona, as does his rise from poverty as a self-made businessman. LePage instinctively, and when it suits his purpose, deliberately avoids tact and discretion as if they were diseases.
Although in 2011 he notoriously called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People a “special interest group” and advised its leaders to “kiss my butt,” as mayor of Waterville he had attended a NAACP event honoring Martin Luther King Jr.
Not surprisingly, LePage’s machismo-laden style resonates more with men than women, with approval ratings normally higher among males. LePage’s macho talk communicates to supporters that he is not a typical politician — indeed, that he is an anti-politician — and they lap it up.
It gives him an aura of populism, a brand as a “man of the people,” an ordinary guy cutting through bureaucratic and political double-talk.
Many Mainers, who otherwise shun political extremes, value independence of party and “politics as usual” and thus adore his performances. The full context of his dustup with the NAACP suggests that they are often performances, while sometimes he may just be shooting from the hip.
In any case, he gives “straight answers” and lets the chips fall where they may. As one working-class supporter of LePage commented during his campaign for governor in 2010, he may wear a suit but is not a “slick-suited politician.”
So LePage’s bluster and defiance of polite conventions give him appeal as a populist man of the people. But it is reactionary populism that provides excellent cover for him to pursue an extreme pro-business, pro-wealthy agenda while attracting the approval and votes of many low- and middle-income Mainers.
LePage and a Republican-controlled Legislature began by repealing Maine’s 38-year-old law allowing same-day voter registration. But in November 2011, the state’s voters restored the practice in a referendum by a wide margin.
Nevertheless, the governor’s term in office has been marked by a pro-business assault on workplace and environmental regulations and social services that is simply breathtaking. He pushed through the biggest business-oriented tax cuts in the state’s history.
His target for “free market reform” included gutting child labor laws, public pension benefits and the state’s Medicaid system and vetoing a proposed hike in the minimum wage.
The corporate interests given favored treatment by his Department of Environmental Protection chief (as reported in this newspaper), at the expense of the state’s environment can be counted on to contribute heavily to his re-election, and are already doing so.
Thus, it would be a mistake to write off his chance of re-election, despite his currently high disapproval rating. While Democratic U.S. Rep. Mike Michaud now leads LePage in polling 39 percent to 35 percent, who in Maine needs to be reminded that LePage squeaked into the governorship with 38 percent in a three-way contest?
Once again, a three-way contest is in the offing with independent Eliot Cutler back in the mix. And LePage’s approval rating is hovering just below the number that got him elected before.
Ron Formisano is author of “The Tea Party: A Brief History” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012) and a summer resident of Chebeague Island.