Gov. Paul LePage has been an unmitigated disaster for Maine. After six years of alleged “conservative” management, our state is still one of the worst in the nation for doing business, and our struggling economy continues to cause our children to flee for better opportunities elsewhere. As we stare down the final year-and-a-half of his administration, it’s critical to consider what allowed our political process to be hijacked by such a menace, so we can prevent it from happening again.
Fault lies in many places.
Maine’s Republican Party allowed a fringe insurgency to take over a party that once celebrated the legacies of some of America’s greatest statesmen and stateswomen, including Joshua Chamberlain and Margaret Chase Smith. Republicans failed to check LePage’s chronic dishonesty and erratic behavior as he rose to power, and most in the party continue to accept his failures without the slightest bit of criticism. This acquiescence to unacceptable behavior and failed governance is something that may forever inhibit the ability of better Republicans to win majority respect among the broader electorate.
Maine Democrats share some blame as well. Democrats had dominated Maine politics for decades. But voters got wise. Democrats were seen as promoting fiscal policy for the sake of self-preservation, rather than for the sake of growing Maine’s economy. Maine Democrats played the part of the establishment elite perfectly, and allowed the ragtag right flank of the GOP to take the moral high ground of representing “the people.” Voters rejected Democrats and chose a cruder set of leaders that, despite their faults, were far more trustworthy when it came to keeping spending in check. And Democrats have failed over the last six years to provide any rational argument to counter this notion.
But perhaps the most important factor in the rise and continuing rampage of this governor has been the inability of Maine’s press to maintain the check on power that aggressive journalism is supposed to provide.
This administration has upended the traditional equilibrium between the press and government. In the past, elected officials would be careful about their words and actions in order to prevent bad publicity. And overt hostility toward the press was seen as counterproductive. The legendary adage, “Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel” summed up the dynamic perfectly. But LePage has stared down the implicit threat of an angry press, and the press has blinked.
Take for example the governor’s weekly appearances on conservative talk radio. LePage refuses direct interviews with print press, and instead favors friendly interviewers who don’t challenge him. By rights, the rest of the press should ignore these appearances in order to force the governor to answer tough questions in an open venue. But that’s not what happens. LePage goes on the radio to get his message out, unfiltered, and instead of rejecting that kind of Pravda-esque policy, our newspapers help him get his message out by running stories about his radio appearances.
This is just one example of how little leverage the Maine press has with this governor. The LePage administration simply doesn’t consider the free press a critical part of the political process.
Covering a politician like LePage is complicated. He and his staff consistently say things that are untrue. They deny direct access, and are notoriously cavalier about Maine’s public information laws. Getting to the bottom of any particular issue requires an unconventional amount of diligence, something often unattainable for a press corps that is already operating at historically low staffing levels.
But something has to change to restore the press’s check on power.
There are lessons to be learned from the way the Washington press is handling the Trump administration. Outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post are producing amazing pieces of journalism that open up the inner workings of the White House to the public. Reporters are documenting the Trump administration’s fury over leaks, sourced through more leaks. The Washington Post’s Jenna Johnson wrote an incredible piece about the chaos that occurred within Trump’s press operation when he fired FBI Director James Comey, complete with imagery of Trump spokesman Sean Spicer hiding in the bushes to avoid cameras.
These reporters have developed sources within the most hostile environment, and their dogged pursuit of transparency allows all of us to know what’s actually happening in our government. The White House press gaggle is united it its demand for truth, and even an authoritarian like Donald Trump is constrained in his ability to proliferate false information because of the diligence of the DC press.
Maine needs more of that. Our State House reporters are doing their best with limited resources, but the whole construct of how we do political news needs to change to fit the times. To start, we need to figure out a way to make the truth louder than the lies, because right now, reality is a faint whisper in the Maine political dialog.
It’s the the sacred role of press in our society to keep constant pressure on our government to be honest and transparent. LePage’s ability to function without respecting the press shows that we’ve lost this important balance.
Maine press needs to reassert itself as a dominant force in our political process, and regain the leverage that keeps politicians from spreading lies as fact.