Gov. Paul LePage is afraid to debate challengers Mike Michaud and Eliot Cutler because he can’t defend his abysmal record on the economy, education and the environment. So what does he do? He announces he won’t debate Michaud because Michaud has refused to repudiate a third-party ad that criticizes LePage.

Hey, Governor, this is an election campaign. Your opponents are allowed to criticize you.

At issue is the claim that earlier this summer LePage called Medicare and Social Security “welfare” in a press release. And he did. That’s exactly what the press release said. To give him the benefit of the doubt, a staff member probably put those words in LePage’s big mouth, but the press release did quote LePage as lumping Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and state unemployment insurance benefits together as “welfare.”

LePage has been frantically trying to backpedal from that gaffe ever since. But rather than say, “My office made a mistake while I was out of the country,” LePage first blamed the media for reporting what the press release actually said, and now blames Michaud for not criticizing Maine Forward, an independent political action committee, for beating LePage over the head with his own words.

LePage might as well say he refuses to participate in any debate where the media might be present.

It used to be that we all had the same facts and just disagreed about what they meant. Like when LePage claims that 22,000 new jobs have been created on his watch. We may agree on the number, but whether it’s something to brag about or not is subject to interpretation.

To Republicans it’s a sign that LePage is doing something right. Critics, however, point out that Maine has only recovered 58 percent of the jobs lost during the recession. So to Democrats it’s proof that Maine’s economy is lagging behind the rest of New England (124 percent job recovery) and the United States (104 percent job recovery), largely due to LePage’s policies.

Sometime during the administration of President George W. Bush, we started to disagree about the facts. Remember weapons of mass destruction? Suddenly all sides had their own facts, their own sources and the truth tended to fall through the cracks. Now LePage has taken the decline of civil discourse down another peg by essentially saying it doesn’t benefit anyone to debate the issues anymore: “I’m right. You’re wrong. End of story.” He only wants to talk to people who agree with him.

If Michaud wanted to throw a LePage-style hissy fit, he might refuse to debate the governor unless LePage repudiates the big lie contained in a flier sent out by the Maine Republican Party: “Mike Michaud Chose Partisan Politics Over Maine Seniors When He Voted to Cut Medicare by $716 billion,” the flier claims.

That’s the spurious charge Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan made that Obamacare amounted to a $716 billion cut in Medicare. But that figure is the savings over 10 years, not a cut. And the savings mostly comes from reduced payments to providers, not reduced benefits. I thought the GOP was all about saving money. Guess not. LePage repeats the big $716 billion lie in one of his campaign videos.

How a guy like LePage, who single-handedly denied health insurance to 60,000 Maine residents by refusing to expand Medicaid, can expect to be taken seriously as an advocate for the poor and elderly is beyond me. LePage is helping Maine’s senior citizens and Mike Michaud is hurting them? Really? Only in the parallel universe that is the GOP’s bizarre world. LePage has his own version of the truth and apparently he and his benighted followers believe it. Either that or they are cynically lying to the Maine people in hopes of hanging on to power.

On Sunday, LePage apparently came to his senses and announced that he would debate Michaud and Cutler after all. Had he actually refused to debate his challengers in the gubernatorial election, he would have forfeited what little is left of the respect due him as governor. Only a fool would vote for a man who won’t defend his words or deeds.

But then, like most bullies, LePage is just a frightened little man when push comes to shove, so I won’t be at all surprised if he finds an excuse to duck a least one of the debates.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.