Political effectiveness is not determined by any one election cycle. It’s a culture, cultivated over years, across elections. The decisions made during this election cycle don’t go away after Election Day. They shape the opinions of voters over a lifetime, and mistakes made during one period aren’t forgotten just because one side wins or loses every other November.
That’s why Republican reaction to Gov. Janet Mills’ first budget is so hard to take seriously. For eight years, Republicans made a complete mess of the budget process. From scare tactics to a shutdown, the GOP embarrassed itself as stewards of what should be a sincere and thoughtful process.
Republicans couldn’t get out of their own way when they were in charge, and ultimately we saw a Republican governor fighting with a Republican Senate president over budget issues, to the point of personal insult and paid political attacks. If the Maine electorate took one thing away from these budget battles, it was that Republicans in Augusta have no business being in charge.
And thus the Maine electorate swept Republicans out of power last year in one of the most thorough house cleanings in recent memory.
It is from this position that Republican legislators begin their relationship with the Mills administration. It’s not a brand new GOP that now plays the role of the loyal opposition, in the eyes of the electorate. It is still the same dysfunctional party that made a mockery of the process for eight years.
So when GOP leadership holds a press conference to call Mills’ budget “unsustainable,” and when “the sky is falling” warnings ring out from right-wing social media and email blasts, the voters aren’t listening.
Ask the average Mainer how big the biennial budget is, and I guarantee the vast majority have no idea.
They do understand trust, though.
And when a political party is shown to be untrustworthy, they remember. They remember that Gov. Paul LePage tried to veto 60-some bills illegally and had the courts repudiate him. They remember that LePage shut down government over a disagreement with his own party. They remember that the Maine GOP faced ethics charges because it created a fake website and then lied about their participation in it. And they remember example after example of Republicans supporting the mismanagement of their government, through no-bid million-dollar contracts for plagiarized reports to the outrageous neglect within the Department of Health and Human Services that resulted in hundreds of deaths of developmentally disabled wards of the state being completely ignored.
There are many long-time Republicans who want nothing to do with the party anymore because of the ridiculous behavior of the people who have been running it. Many of us are champing at the bit to reform this fetid institution, and return it to the point where people actually want to join it, instead of walk away from it.
There’s no easy path forward. But a starting point has to be a concerted effort to re-establish credibility with the Maine people, over multiple election cycles. This means being honest and trustworthy. It means approaching the responsibility of governance not as raging ideologues but as grown-up professionals. And it means a return to the very basic concept that the goal of politics is to convince people you are right, not to alienate those who disagree with you.
I don’t want to see our state government expand beyond what we can afford. But in order to effectively advocate for conservative principles, Republicans first have to shed the negative public perception they’ve earned over the last eight years.
Until this happens, Republican legislators will not be a serious factor in budget debates or any other public policy discussions. Perhaps the futility of the current situation will dawn on party leaders and activists soon, and we can get back to a reasonable discussion about the best way forward for our state.