August 18, 2013

Michael Cuzzi: LePage wins, but only in the short term

Say this much about Gov. LePage: He's a master of divided government. And he knows it.

On Wednesday he bluntly told reporters, "The state is not going to be run by (legislative) committees, it's going to be run by the chief executive of the state."

It was a telling moment, putting into sharp relief a key tenet of LePage's governing philosophy, namely that no one tells him what to do. Not the Legislature, not interest groups, not the Republican caucus, not his staff, and not even the people of Maine.

And why not?

Because LePage knows a submissive Republican caucus has his back (with little apparent regard for their own political mortality).

He knows Democrats need a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to get anything done, a heavy lift.

And he knows 39 percent of the vote could get him re-elected.

In other words, there's precious little incentive for the governor to check his ego or abandon. And, in the short term at least, that serves him well.

Yes, LePage is unpredictable, volatile and divisive. But when it comes to moving his major legislative priorities or torpedoing ones he dislikes, he's crazy like a fox, using his bully pulpit and the levers of power to achieve his ends with scant regard for the consequences or collateral damage.

Look no further than his refusal last week to allow department heads to appear before the Legislature's Appropriations Committee as they worked to develop a bond package.

The provocative act angered legislators, was an affront to a co-equal branch of government and is an abysmal way to conduct the people's business.

But it was also a shrewd maneuver to compel Democrats to negotiate and move them closer toward his position. And the governor had little to lose.

LePage knew legislative Republicans were in lock-step with him on the type, timing and size of any bond package, and that Democrats couldn't risk appearing "anti-jobs" by stubbornly adhering to a previous bipartisan agreement on the bonds' timetable.

As a result, it appears some version of a transportation and infrastructure bond could appear on November's ballot, largely as the governor demanded.

We've seen a similar dynamic play out on hospital debt repayment, Medicaid expansion and the energy bill.

In each case, through threats, vitriol and an unabashed willingness to hold the process hostage, the governor got his way.

But here's the rub: LePage is winning victories that won't help him when it counts.

While he often wins the legislative battle de jour, the rhetorical gaffes, attacks and distractions along the way exact a political toll that increasingly positions him to lose the broader "war": re-election.

With his proclivity to offend and insult, political observers nationwide see LePage as one of the most vulnerable incumbent governors in the country, with favorability ratings never exceeding 44 percent during his time in office.

In many ways, the governor is his own worst enemy, never failing to create a political gong show where none was necessary.

Just think of the labor mural, "kiss my butt," "go to hell," "little beards," "Vaseline," "get our guns out," "the new Gestapo" and blowing up the Portland Press Herald (to name a few).

Maine voters are fatigued, embarrassed, angry and exasperated by this governor. They're ready to move on and unlikely to make the same mistake that elected LePage in the first place.

We already know a majority of Mainers will vote for someone other than the governor in the next election.

That's why LePage's campaign hinges on Cutler and Michaud cannibalizing Democratic and unenrolled voters.

If neither emerges as the unqualified alternative to LePage, it leaves a lane open for the governor.

But that scenario is increasingly unlikely, thanks largely to the governor himself.

Voters will search for and coalesce behind the clear "anyone but LePage" candidate, rendering the Michaud-Cutler race-within-a-race perhaps more significant than the broader gubernatorial contest itself, especially come this time next year.

We know the governor's divisive, bare-knuckled style is well-suited to imposing his will in Augusta.

But if history is any guide, his nasty and narrow legislative victories will simultaneously undermine his own electoral prospects.

Just ask the former Republican legislative majority.

Paul LePage isn't apt to lose the election simply because of his policies. He's apt to lose the election because he's Paul LePage.

Michael Cuzzi is a former campaign aide to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and former U.S. Rep. Tom Allen. He manages the Portland office of VOX Global, a strategic communications and public affairs firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at:

mjcuzzi@gmail.com

Twitter: @CuzziMJ

 

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