Politics & Other Mistakes: Strangely familiar
The clock struck midnight on a cold, starless night in January, 2011, signaling the end of Inauguration Day in Maine. Earlier, Republican Paul LePage had been sworn in as the state's new governor, an event marked by exuberance and incoherence. As the festivities wound down and the remaining drunken Tea Party hooligans carried off the few intact antiques left in the Blaine House, an exhilarated-but-weary LePage retired to his private quarters, only to be confronted by:
The ghost of Jim Longley.
“Paul,” the specter of the late independent chief executive said, “I want to teach you how to be governor.”
LePage froze, unable to speak. Even in French. He had modeled his combative political style on Longley’s oddball 1974 campaign, which had featured wild promises of governmental reform, tax cuts and general disruption of the political establishment. To be confronted by his inspiration, a man who'd died in 1980, was mind-boggling.
Longley chuckled. “You did pretty well as a candidate,” he said, “claiming the Democrats were using ethnic and religious slurs against you. Even though there was no evidence of that, the allegations still resonated with your core supporters and dopier undecided voters. That's why I always turned every disagreement into a personal attack.
“After press criticism of some of my policy mistakes, I once sent a statement to a newspaper that said, ‘[T]he background of hating Jews and Catholics and Protestants is not unlike haters of difference of personality, in difference [with] an individual who disagrees with you or an individual who dares to be different.’
“Thus, I turned all my critics into bigots. That shut most of them up and left the rest on the defensive.”
LePage finally found his tongue.
“But how can I keep the ridiculous promises I made in my campaign?” asked the new governor. “I’m facing a billion-dollar deficit, and I said I’d cut taxes.”
“Don’t sweat it,” Longley replied. “When I ran, I promised the same things. Once I got in office, I found out most of what I'd pledged was impossible or nonsensical. So, I just brushed it off by saying stuff like this:
“‘You know, when we were talking about budget, perspectively, it’s easier to talk retrospectively with specifics than prospectively.’
"Made no sense, but I got even more popular.
“During my four years in office, the state budget increased, taxes didn’t go down, and there were no significant reforms. But to this day, people still think I cut spending and changed the way Augusta works.”
LePage gave this some thought.
“Does that mean I don’t actually have to do anything?” he said. “Then, how will I deal with the budget shortfall?”
Longley's ghost let loose a derisive snort.
“Haven’t you learned anything from being mayor of Waterville?” he said. “You balance the budget by not paying for things that won’t be noticed until you're long out of office and too venerated to be blamed for failing to fund them.
“I didn't set aside money for road and bridge repairs. The state is still trying to catch up with the backlog. I also stopped making payments to cover the unfunded liability in the state employee retirement system. None of those people voted for me, anyway, so why should I care about their pensions.
“And I lucked out. The national economy picked up in the mid-1970s. I took credit for an increase in state revenues that I had nothing to do with. You might be able to do the same. The recession probably won’t be as bad as during Baldacci’s terms, so you can claim you turned things around.”
LePage wasn't convinced.
“What if some pointy-headed intellectuals discover I didn’t actually do anything?”
“Don’t sweat it,” said Longley. “You just dismiss those Poindexters with snappy rhetoric. One of the times I said something that was flat-out false, I got away with it by telling the press: “I didn’t mean that singularly or subjectively. I mean that objectively.”
LePage looked confused. “What does that mean?”
“It means about the same as you meant,” said Longley, “when you complained in a speech in Bangor last June about regulations on business getting ‘tougher and tougher and tougher,’ and then tried to ban medical marijuana clinics in Waterville. Or when you claimed the Bible is ‘a working document” that ‘can be enhanced or changed.’ Or when you said you'd end federal limits on fishing by exerting state sovereignty over ocean waters.
“It was all stupid, but it got you elected. Don’t try to go all logical now.”
“I see your point,” said LePage. “I think I understand how to be governor.”
“Good,” said Longley, “because to thank me for my help, you have to promise to return from the afterlife in a few years to explain all this to the next idiot.”
Some of the Longley material in this column came from Willis Johnson’s excellent book, “The Year of the Longley.” Credit for the LePage blunders goes to Colin Woodard’s blog and the Village Soup's guide to the gubernatorial candidates. All the snark is mine and may be criticized by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.