Imagine you’re driving down the highway, late for a meeting, and two cars race by, recklessly weaving in and out of traffic. Ten minutes later brake lights flash and you stop abruptly. Your stress level rises as you realize you’re entangled in a massive traffic jam. Cars are honking and the traffic builds up around you. You’re going nowhere now, stuck for hours. You’re going to miss your meeting, your kids need to find rides home from school, and your life has been senselessly turned upside-down. As you inch toward the scene of the accident, there they are — those same two cars from earlier. Both drivers are safe, but you see them laughing and high-fiving each other, inconceivably proud of the massive pile-up they created.
This is essentially what Maine citizens just experienced when Gov. Paul LePage and House Republicans forced a needless government shutdown last week.
As the clock ticked toward the end of the state’s fiscal year, when a new budget would be required to keep the lights on, LePage and his minions on the right flank of the House GOP caucus kept making outrageous demands in order to force a shutdown. Repeating their mantra of “Shut it down!”, the governor and his sycophants in the House and in right-wing media seemed giddy at the prospect of causing this metaphorical 20-car pile-up.
As Mainers were turned away from closed Bureau of Motor Vehicles offices, as more than 10,000 state workers faced the prospect of going without a salary for the foreseeable future, and as tourism businesses up and down the state wondered whether their entire season might collapse under the prospect of closed state parks and attractions, LePage bragged about playing chicken with the Legislature, saying he would let the state go over the cliff rather than compromise.
And when the shutdown ended, the recklessness of their efforts was on full display. The House GOP and LePage gathered for a celebratory budget-signing photo op, cheering and congratulating themselves in a nauseating display of cluelessness. The state Republican Party claimed victory, and the obsequious host of a conservative radio program greeted the governor by saying, “All hail the conquering hero.”
The term “out-of-touch” doesn’t even begin to describe the situation.
This was no victory, for LePage or House Republicans, for two specific reasons:
First, the budget compromise that LePage signed and House Republicans celebrated as a victory was the same budget that Senate President Mike Thibodeau offered to the House GOP three weeks prior to the shutdown. Thibodeau had already negotiated the one GOP budget victory — the elimination of the 3 percent education tax surcharge — into this early proposal. The shutdown would never have happened had LePage accepted this deal in the first place.
Second, LePage surrendered on almost every front. He and the House GOP made all kinds of demands that were never met.
LePage said he’d never sign a budget more than $7 billion. But the budget he signed and celebrated was $7.1 billion.
LePage said he wouldn’t sign a budget without a statewide teacher contract. But the budget he signed did not contain a statewide teacher contract.
LePage said he wouldn’t sign a budget without changes to the state’s Tree Growth tax break program. The budget he signed did not contain these changes.
The list of LePage’s unmet demands goes on and on.
From a negotiating standpoint, the final budget agreement was a disaster for the governor — he capitulated on nearly every line-in-the-sand he drew.
Not exactly the hallmark of a “conquering hero.”
This makes it pretty hard to understand why the governor and his pals made such a scene of self-congratulation when he signed the budget. The optics of the event were surreal — it was like watching Robert E. Lee high-fiving his troops at Appomattox.
LePage’s victory party was also horrendously disrespectful to the tens of thousands of Mainers whose lives were thrown into uncertainty because of this reckless exercise. Most Mainers don’t follow the arcane details of the budget process, but they do understand that when the government shuts down, somebody screwed up. When they realize they may not be able to feed their families next week because some blowhard at the State House decides to play chicken for the shear fun of it, and when they see these same blowhards patting themselves on the back for this mess they created, the limited faith voters have in our state government starts evaporating really quickly.
The shutdown was a failure, plain and simple. The only thing it succeeded in was causing chaos and uncertainty in the lives of thousands and thousands of Mainers. No one should be celebrating it, and no one “won” the shutdown.
Just like the two hypothetical reckless drivers who caused the traffic jam, LePage and House Republicans should be ashamed of themselves for causing so many so much trouble for so little reason.