Rep. Bruce Poliquin is having another spate of bad publicity. Caught on tape behind closed doors, Poliquin reinforced his opponents’ contention that he is afraid to engage his constituents by spinning a convoluted yarn about why he won’t do press interviews. In short: the press is out to get him, he said.
Sound familiar? That’s because this narrative has been scripted by the same advisor that brought us Paul LePage’s “hysterical fear of the media as a political strategy” strategy, as I call it: a political consultant name Brent Littlefield.
Political observers will know Littlefield from his inarguable record of recent electoral successes in Maine — first as the head consultant for LePage in his surprise 2010 gubernatorial victory, and then as head consultant for Poliquin in his winning 2014 bid for congress.
Littlefield is an exasperating know-it-all, talks over everyone and is incessantly self-promoting. His challenging personality is his hallmark, and reflects a distinct tone-deafness toward reasonable expectations of behavior in the political arena.
In 2010, while serving as communications director for the Maine GOP, I traveled to then-candidate LePage’s campaign headquarters in Waterville to help with debate preparation. I sat in LePage’s office, across the desk from the future governor, along with Maine Heritage Policy Center CEO Tarren Bragdon. Littlefield was going to join the meeting by phone.
LePage dialed Littlefield’s number, but it went straight to voicemail. When LePage realized Littlefield would not be part of the meeting, a relieved smile came over his face. “That guy,” he said, shaking his head, “drives me crazy.”
LePage was a major underdog in the 2010 GOP primary for governor, and had a hard time finding anyone to work on his campaign. By the time he got to Littlefield, he had already been turned down by other consultants. A hopeless candidate with a second-choice campaign chief, no one gave Littlefield or LePage any chance at winning.
Both men proved everyone else wrong. LePage rolled over a crowded GOP primary field and narrowly won the general election. Though they stumbled and bumbled through the campaign, victory tends to preclude criticism, and the things they did wrong became, to them, the basis of their success.
One of the things they did wrong was the aggressively obnoxious anti-media stance that has played out in farcical ways over the years. Littlefield realized early on that LePage’s mouth was his opponents’ biggest asset, and set a strict ban on talking to national media. This blossomed into an adversarial posture with all press after LePage descended into the buffoonery we all know well by now — being physically aggressive with reporters, swearing from the podium, and making facts up to suit his positions.
Littlefield took a necessity — keeping an incompetent public speaker and pathological liar away from the microphone — and turned it into a philosophy. Now the press is an evil monolithic entity out to get Republicans, and even when they simply report what LePage himself says, Littlefield and the rest of their cabal lash out at the stories as “fake news.”
And it works. In a state that elects plurality governors, LePage can afford to be hated by a majority of the population, and he is.
Poliquin is a different story. He needs a majority of 2nd Congressional District voters to support him, and putting a proverbial middle finger up to the news media is not a great way to gain that support in a state where independents outnumber both Republicans and Democrats.
Poliquin is a great public speaker, and a highly intelligent, competent person. But Littlefield appears to have convinced him to join the “blame the press” copout club, and it’s not doing him any good. Rather than engaging in a clear discussion about the most important issues of the day, Poliquin is hiding in the ladies’ room and having his staff put their hands over camera lenses to avoid speaking publicly. It’s a foolish way to act for anyone, and especially tragic for a politician as naturally talented as Poliquin.
Maine is a small state, and though obnoxious politicians can win races from time to time, our standard is not to elevate these people to our pantheon of true leaders. Poliquin has worked hard for his turn in the arena of higher office, but he will need to dramatically reassess his political loyalties if he aspires to be more than an inconsequential congressman. The path he’s allowed himself to go down — playing conspiracy theory games with the press and treating his office as a partisan entrenchment — will not elevate him out of the proverbial swamp.
Representing Maine in Congress is an honor predicated on adherence to a higher standard of behavior than Littlefield’s charges have exhibited. Maine deserves elected officials who can stand their ground, speak the truth, and weather the scrutiny of an aggressive news media. This should not be a difficult standard to meet.