Politics

October 11, 2013

Bill Nemitz: LePage, Collins’ behavior beyond baffling

Their responses to crises leave jaws gaping.

So you thought things couldn’t get any wackier in our state and federal governments?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the invisible emergency and the disappearing deadline!

We begin with the former.

Wednesday afternoon, an email titled “Governor Declares Civil Emergency to Minimize Fiscal Impacts of Federal Shutdown” went out to reporters and editors all over Maine, the vast majority of whom immediately snapped to attention and put on their “Breaking News” hats.

The problem was, after reading and rereading the press release top to bottom, nobody could figure out what it meant.

At least we weren’t alone: All over Augusta, politicians and bureaucrats alike huddled over the Guv’s carefully (or not) chosen words.

Then they labored hard to craft a response in case the media asked what they thought about LePage’s promise to “exercise my authority to suspend strict compliance with laws or rules that prevent, hinder, and delay effective management of the emergency.”

My hands-down favorite reaction?

“I don’t know what the hell he’s talking about,” the never-shy Attorney General Janet Mills told Portland Press Herald staffer Joe Lawlor.

Now let’s be clear: The federal shutdown is indeed a big problem that will only get bigger for the states the longer it goes on. And LePage, while being the only governor in the nation to ratchet it up to “civil emergency” status, has good reason to worry about all those state paychecks that rely at least in part on federal funds that are no longer flowing north.

Still, when LePage suddenly starts getting all warm and fuzzy with state workers – “During this very difficult time, my thoughts are with our hard-working state employees and their families who have been adversely affected by this unprecedented federal shutdown” – I can’t help recalling that time last year when he called those same workers “as corrupt as you can be.”

“Believe me, we’re trying every day to get them to go to work,” he added back then. “But it’s hard.”

I’d hoped Thursday morning, after the Legislature’s Democratic leaders finally sat down with LePage to hear a little more about his newly expanded powers, we’d all have a better handle on what this “emergency” entails and what exactly the Guv plans to do about it.

Didn’t happen.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said efforts to lend a little definition to LePage’s proclamation were “met with a cold shoulder.”

That leaves all of Maine, as usual, waiting with bated breath to see what the Big Guy has up his sleeve this time: A helping hand? Or, as many state workers have good reason to fear, is it a clenched fist?

Next up is the disappearing deadline, brought to us in dazzling doublespeak by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins.

Collins, in an interview Wednesday with Press Herald Washington Bureau Chief Kevin Miller, pooh-poohed all this talk about the U.S. economy (not to mention the global markets) going into a death spiral if the federal debt ceiling isn’t raised by Oct. 17.

To be sure, Collins said, reneging on the nation’s financial obligations would have “dire consequences.” She added, however, that the Oct. 17 deadline fails to take into account the U.S. Treasury’s ability during past debt crises “to shift obligations or payments ... in a way that gives us a little more time.”

I’m told Collins was furious with the Press Herald over Miller’s story. Her spokesman, Kevin Kelley, complained in an email that it was “misleading” and that we were the only news organization in the universe with the gall to report that she’s “skeptical” about anything terrible happening come midnight on Oct. 17.

So imagine my surprise when I tuned into CNN Thursday morning and there was Collins, once again claiming “there’s some skepticism about whether (Oct. 17) really is the date – given what we’ve seen before.”

The point here is not the notorious thinness of the senator’s skin or her remarkable ability to appease the extreme elements of the Republican Party while clinging to her image as Maine’s matriarch of moderation.

Rather, it’s Collins’ startling inability (or refusal) to separate this week’s top Republican talking point (“Deadline? What deadline?”) from the inescapable truth about the world’s already skittish financial markets: Fast-spreading fear, not the precise proximity of the lightning bolt, is what starts a stampede. And once the whole herd bolts, it’s all but impossible to rein in the panic.

In other words, Collins may well be correct that the Treasury can scrape together enough cash to pay the day’s bills one short week from today. But if the world economy is already in free fall at that morning’s opening bell, so what?

The painful irony behind the latest political headlines is that both LePage and Collins, as they struggle to stay one foot ahead of a truly historic partisan meltdown, have no one to blame but their own Republican Party for dragging them into this mess in the first place.

Thus LePage now finds himself raging against “this mess in Washington, D.C.,” with no acknowledgment whatsoever that the tea partiers who got him elected and the tea partiers who are now gumming up his state government are in fact the same chorus of tone-deaf obstructionists.

Collins, meanwhile, struggles to placate the right-wing extremists in the House of Representatives while presenting herself as the voice of compromise and reason – all as her campaign for a fourth term (remember she vowed she’d serve only two?) looms just around the corner.

Last week, while Collins’ spokesman Kelley tried mightily to convince me that his boss was working “behind the scenes” with the House rebels to solve this national crisis, I made him a promise:

“If you folks put out a press release over the next few days announcing that the shutdown, the debt crisis, Obamacare – the whole mess – has been magically solved simply by repealing a new tax on medical devices, I’ll laugh out loud.”

Tuesday evening, an email landed in my in-box. It featured Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, both heaping praise on Collins’ proposal to end the shutdown in exchange for the face-saving “repeal (of) the medical device tax imposed by the new health care law.”

Hear that?

It’s me – laughing out loud.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: bnemitz@pressherald.comTwitter: @billnemitz——

Correction: This column was revised at 10:06 a.m., Oct. 11, 2013, to correctly identify the Press Herald staffer who quoted Attorney General Janet Mills. It was Joe Lawlor.

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