Folks like me call it “the Cocktail Party Syndrome.”
If you happen to be a moderate Republican in Southern Maine, you know what I’m talking about.
You go to some type of social gathering and hope to God no one asks you about politics. As you hear the left-leaning din of conversation spread around the room, you start to sweat nervously, and you start practicing evasion techniques in your head.
It’s not that you’re embarrassed of your belief system, but you know that identifying as a Republican in Maine brings with it a whole truckload of baggage. When people learn you’re a Republican, you immediately become aligned with a caricatured social identity that’s been maligned and misrepresented through television and popular culture for decades.
Privately, mainstream Republicans have stewed about these misrepresentations. We’re not racists. We’re not numb to the plight of the impoverished. We don’t want to fire all the teachers. And we’re not secretly working toward a theocracy. These are ridiculous stereotypes used by some on the left to discredit anyone daring to espouse a belief in fiscal responsibility or limited government.
The Cocktail Party Syndrome has been mitigated to some degree by the Republicans who’ve risen to office in Maine over the years. Bill Cohen, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins have all provided a template for the public to understand that not all Republicans subscribe to the talk radio theory of right-of-center politics.
But whatever cover our previous GOP luminaries have given us went up in smoke when Paul LePage stepped onto the statewide political scene.
Though he immediately displayed the social skills of a musk ox, the policy principles he claimed to support sounded great. Lower taxes? Sure! Reduced dependency on welfare? Absolutely! A better business climate? Heck yes!
After six years, though, the governor has done everything he possibly could to reinforce the negative stereotypes, and almost none of the positive things we hoped for.
While Republicans have argued against the ridiculous blanket claims of racism from some on the left, LePage has done all he can to make people believe it’s true. He’s called people of color “the enemy,” made blanket false claims about the proliferation of black drug dealers in Maine, claimed black drug dealers come to Maine and impregnate white girls, told the press that “black people come up the highway and they kill Mainers,” claimed Barack Obama hates white people, and said that “the blacks” should thank us northern white folks for giving them their freedom.
And it’s not just the racism stereotype LePage has reinforced.
He’s made irrational decisions that have denied hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid to Maine’s most needy. He’s spent his time meeting with conspiracy theorists and anti-government “Sovereign Citizens.” He’s told Mainers to shoot suspected drug dealers. He told the teenage son of a political cartoonist that he’d like to shoot his father. He calls even Republicans in the Legislature “socialists,” and declared that supporters of a minimum wage increase should be jailed for attempted murder.
All of this makes it nearly impossible for level-headed Republicans to argue against the stereotypes.
Paul LePage is the stereotype: all of the worst things the left has accused Republicans of, rolled up into one package.
From a policy perspective, LePage has made it equally difficult for Republicans. The governor claimed the mantle of fiscal responsibility when he took office, but his failures have become a case study against conservative economic principles.
How can Republicans claim that lower taxes will lead to economic growth, when six years of LePage’s fiscal stewardship have left us 49th in the nation for business climate?
How can Republicans claim that fiscal responsibility will strengthen the social safety net, when our deaths from drug overdoses spiral out of control?
How can Republicans claim that our pro-business philosophy will bring outside investment back to Maine, when LePage’s administration continues to arbitrarily drive businesses away?
The answer is, we can’t. Not until Republicans admit — or better, declare — that Paul LePage has not represented our values. Not when it comes to policy, and especially not when it comes to morals.
The longer Republican leaders continue to cover for him, the harder it will be to overcome the damaging stereotypes that have made it so hard to grow this party beyond a rough third of the overall Maine electorate.
Politics is the art of convincing people that you’re right, not defending things that are so obviously wrong. If the Maine GOP is going to be a club people want to join, and if we are going to be able to convince people to go along with our policies, we better make it clear that Paul LePage does not reflect what the Republican Party stands for.