“I like to call him Mr. Irrelevant.”
This was Gov. Paul LePage last week, referring to yours truly during his weekly talk radio interview on WVOM. The governor went on to spend the next six minutes discussing just how irrelevant I was.
Then he went on WGAN in Portland a few days later to further elaborate on my irrelevance.
Now I’ve never considered myself particularly relevant. But when the governor of Maine comes up with a nickname for you, it’s easy to start thinking you’re something special.
This wasn’t the first time the governor has had harsh words for me. Last year, after I helped expose his comments about black men coming to Maine to “impregnate young white girls,” LePage held a press conference during which he chastised the Maine media for being manipulated by me, telling them they were “in the pocket of an adversarial blogger.”
This was pretty flattering. As someone who makes a living interacting with the press, an endorsement from the governor lauding my incredible powers of media manipulation was solid gold.
In all honesty, though, the governor’s answer to any question that has anything to do with me should be simply, “Who?”
This is a lesson LePage has never learned. He is the governor of Maine, and despite his plentiful flaws, he is still one of the most important people in our state. When he engages with someone like me, he diminishes his own stature, and lifts up his adversaries.
It’s commonly called “punching down,” and it’s something the governor has done over and over throughout his time in the Blaine House.
Politics is a game of perceived hierarchy. People tend to be as important as they act, a dynamic that makes this sport particularly nauseating at times. It’s why so many incompetent but arrogant people tend to rise up the ladder in politics and government.
Nevertheless, perception is power, and if people see you punching down all the time, they tend to perceive you as equal in stature to whoever you’re throwing punches at.
The governor has broken this basic rule of politics over and over through the years. No one outside of Westbrook likely had any idea who Rep. Drew Gattine was until LePage left a profanity-laden voicemail on Gattine’s phone that launched him on a national media tour. Sen. Troy Jackson became a Democratic hero when the governor told a TV reporter that “he’s the first one to give it to the people without providing Vaseline.”
This pettiness costs LePage a lot. Every time he gets distracted like this, he loses credibility. His ability to champion causes is diminished, and he’s taken less seriously by the Legislature and the business community.
I think part of the reason for this, besides his generally base character, is that LePage doesn’t understand his responsibility, as governor, to actually lead the state. We hear him time and again blaming the Legislature for his failures. In his appearance on WVOM last week, he acknowledged his failure to improve Maine’s business climate but blamed it all on Democrats.
“I can lead a horse to water, but I can’t make him drink,” he said.
This isn’t leading. Leading is building consensus, even with your political opponents. What LePage has tried to do over the last six years is bully. He has an odd sense of entitlement about his position as governor, and seems completely baffled that everyone doesn’t simply do what he commands.
This is a strange behavior pattern for someone like LePage who claims to be a student of history. Our nation’s history is full of examples of great political leaders who moved mountains through their ability to change their opponents’ minds, through charismatic coercion or through masterful works of leverage.
Our political system does not generally reward those who refuse to build consensus. Politicians like LePage whose approval ratings are consistently under 50 percent tend to be considered failures. LePage was elected twice because of a three-way split in the vote, and though this gave him electoral victories, it did not give him a mandate. Without a mandate, he has been unable to accomplish any of the things — a lower tax burden, lower energy costs or a better business climate — that he promised in both of his campaigns.
So when LePage decides to spend several days on a talk radio tour trashing newspaper columnists, while it’s great for my ego, it just makes him look petty. He’s picking fights with B-list politicos instead of working to move our state forward. It diminishes his stature and makes him look like an unserious figure.
And, at the end of the day, there’s only one way to describe a lame-duck chief executive who no one takes seriously.