There is no silly season.
The political silly season has recently been described as any time when a lull in hard news yields frivolous, forgettable stories about matters of little or no consequence to regular people. But the problem with the term “silly season” is the implication that the silly is temporary. It is not. It is always, forever.
This is what we learned from 2013.
Examples, you say? How about a year’s worth?
Remember when Gov. Paul LePage threatened to move out of the State House because Democratic leaders asked him to remove from the Hall of Flags his television broadcasting political messages? That was quite a story, two full days of news coverage and national media attention.
The governor initially vowed to conduct state business at the Blaine House, which may not have been all that bad for his staff since the food is much better over there. But that move would not have been possible if a bill by Rep. Diane Russell, D-Portland, had passed the Legislature. Russell’s bill would have eliminated the governor’s pension and given the state permission to sell the Blaine House, which just happens to be LePage’s only residence.
The governor has mistakenly blamed Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, for Russell’s bill. His mistake: Jackson only tried to eliminate the governor’s pension.
The confusion over the two proposals later surfaced during the governor’s epic and fascinating broadside against Jackson on June 20. The governor said the Democratic leader was “the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.” He later accused Jackson of trying to take away his pension (that part was correct) and throwing his wife and mother-in-law “out on the street” (that part was wrong).
The governor was less concerned about his pension in March when he tweeted that he’d give it up if Democrats passed his hospital debt bill. LePage, vacationing in Jamaica at the time, signed off with, “Ya mon!”
Democrats ultimately passed the hospital debt bill, but by June the governor had second thoughts about giving up his pension, not to mention Jackson’s proposal to take it away. It’s not clear if the absence of Caribbean sunshine had darkened the governor’s mood, or the fact that Jackson had the temerity to suggest that Democrats had enough Republican votes to override the governor’s veto of the Legislature’s budget compromise.
Jackson was right to be confident. Eight days later the Legislature overrode the governor’s budget veto, preventing a shutdown of state government.
By then, the governor had found a new home for his TV. Someone removed a pane of glass near his office, and the 46-inch, $1,483 flat-screen now broadcasts into the Hall of Flags messages about taxes, debt and welfare. (Given the broadening definition of welfare in 2013, the latter could mean just about any state spending the governor opposes, so be thankful that he hasn’t described road paving as “welfare for cars.”)
Democratic leaders were annoyed with the TV story, which was weird since they were the ones who told everyone about it. Senate President Justin Alfond, speaking to reporters May 23, was incredulous that the TV kerfuffle overshadowed Democrats’ final vote on a bill to expand Medicaid and pay back Maine hospitals $186 million in backlogged Medicaid payments.
Alfond was probably right that the TV story was “trivial.” The problem was that the Senate Democratic news office promoted it via news release with the tantalizing headline: “Gov gives notice: I’m moving out.”
May 23 also showcased Augusta leaders’ obsession with media events, or, in political parlance, “winning the news cycle.”
As the TV spat transitioned to the final vote on a bill combining Medicaid expansion with LePage’s plan to pay back the hospitals, Democrats forced through the bill over unified Republican opposition and LePage’s promise of a veto. Democrats knew the victory would be symbolic and short-lived, but they booked the Hall of Flags for a celebratory news conference anyway.
As the Senate finished its final vote, it was easy to envision the governor waiting outside the chamber to grab the bill, put it against a wall and veto it with a Sharpie.
LePage did one better. His staff members arrived in the Hall of Flags before the Democrats. They rolled out a table and chair for LePage and corralled about a dozen Republican lawmakers to applaud the governor’s kill-stroke in front of all the assembled media. LePage stole the show and the next day’s headlines. In Twitter political parlance, this is called “#winning.”
One Democrat described the experience as winning the academic decathlon and showing up at “school to take a victory lap, only to walk in to see that the football team had destroyed our trophy and drawn mustaches on our team photo.”
The decathletes would have their revenge Sept. 19 when their allies at the Maine People’s Alliance sent in an operative dressed as Uncle Sam to crash the governor’s hospital payback tour featuring oversized checks. Republicans and the governor’s staff were livid that this publicity stunt shared a headline with the governor’s publicity stunt.
The battle over messaging and headlines was relentless, endless. So were the dueling news conferences. These competing events sometimes took place in close proximity to one another, evoking the exclusive “conversational bouquets” that Tom Wolfe described in “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”
Occasionally, however, partisan operatives infiltrated their opponent’s conversational bouquet to morph into ventriloquists. Their unwilling (mostly) puppets? Reporters. Operatives texted reporters – or, in some instances, whispered in their ears – questions that were designed to trip up the recitation of talking points. Some reporters played along. Most resented it.
It was all part of the daily, incremental combat at the State House, where reporters could be forgiven for the temptation to shout one of the best lines in Jim Morrison’s otherwise unremarkable canon of poetry: “You’re plastic soldiers in a miniature dirt war!”
Sadly, that never happened.
The war over and against the media raged throughout 2013. In August the battle went virtual – and then viral – when the governor climbed into an F-35 Lightning II demonstrator in North Berwick. When asked by a Lockheed Martin Corp. technician what he wanted to do, LePage said, “I want to find the Press Herald building and blow it up.” The governor took some heat for the joke, but everyone seemed to overlook the extremely eager technician.
“I tell you what, we’re gonna do it!” he said enthusiastically. After LePage’s missile found its target, he added, “Great job!”
Speaking of jobs, here’s a suggested New Year’s resolution for elected officials: Don’t ridicule working stiffs.
The governor stepped into the trap during his attack against Jackson. People like Jackson, a professional logger, “ought to go back into the woods and cut trees and let someone with a brain come down here and do some good work,” said the governor, identifying for the WMTW reporter the right man for the job by pointing two thumbs at himself.
LePage later said he didn’t mean to equate loggers with Jackson. There was no such equivocation in the error-ridden email rant penned by Democratic Rep. Brian Bolduc of Auburn. Bolduc was upset that truckers were using noisy compression brakes, or jake brakes, near his home.
He wrote that it’s obvious from looking at them that truckers “don’t have a whole hell of a lot of brains in their heads.” He then demanded that Auburn police form a regular patrol on his street and rack up citations against the brainless, yet somehow cunning, menace.
Brains also were on the mind of Rep. Kenneth Fredette on June 13 when the House Republican leader embarked on a perilous floor speech to oppose Medicaid expansion. Fredette attempted to disassemble the Democratic argument that Medicaid expansion is free by drawing an analogy from the book “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.”
Fredette was attempting to say that the two parties approached the Medicaid issue differently, but Democrats quickly took his analogy to its logical conclusion: Democrats are women who don’t understand that things aren’t free.
Politicians contemplating such comparisons in public typically receive a twinge signaling danger. It’s unclear if Fredette experienced this sensation, but he ignored it if he did.
So did Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant, who was forced to apologize for trying to parse a woman’s brain. Grant, attempting to defend Democratic lawmakers’ initial move to reject a sex trafficking bill sponsored by Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, told the Maine Public Broadcasting Network that Republicans were “desperate to try to realign a gender gap that their party faces at the polls” and that Volk “needs to kind of soften her hard edges.”
If you think that hurt, just wait until 2014.
Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: