The concept of a “straight man” is a bedrock comedy institution. A relatively normal, identifiable person is paired with an off-the-wall character, and the contrast between the two creates comedy gold. Laurel and Hardy, Burns and Allen, Abbott and Costello, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, the Smothers Brothers, all of these acts relied on the straight man routine to become some of the biggest comedy acts of the 20th century.
In Maine’s State House, a similar act is starting to play out. Gov. Janet Mills enters her first term as a reliably normal, relatable figure, with serious policy positions and reasonable expectations of progress. But she’s contrasted by Democratic legislative leaders who will propose policies that are out of touch and far to the left of what Maine voters want.
And the gold that results is not going to be comedic, but political. This contrast will make Mills seem like the most reasonable political figure in Augusta.
Take, for instance, the first policy initiative proposed by House Speaker Sara Gideon. Here’s the headline: “House Speaker proposes new tax to fund paid leave for Maine workers.”
Providing a framework that ensures Maine workers have adequate leave for child birth or to care for a sick relative is a worthy goal. Raising taxes on every working Mainer is not. Gideon’s proposal — to increase payroll taxes on everyone — affirms every GOP caricature of what a Democrat-led government would result in.
Gideon has also made clear her intentions to challenge Sen. Susan Collins in 2020, which makes this move seem even more clumsy. Before anyone gets to know her, Gideon is defining herself as a tax-and-spend liberal who is out of touch with working Maine people. It’s a self-inflicted wound that we’ll surely hear a lot about in the next two years.
Reasonable Democrats have quietly questioned the move, bemoaning such a head-first dive into the wrong end of the economic pool. There’s a legitimate fear from some on the left that too abrupt a progressive lurch will mean a short lifespan for their legislative majorities.
Those reasonable Democrats, however, are missing the hook. Gideon is playing the part of Jerry Lewis, totally disconnected from reality, while Mills, with her trademark smirk and metaphorical highball glass in hand, calmly plays the Dean Martin role.
Mills made a pledge early not to raise taxes this year, and with the mandate she carries, odds are she sticks to it regardless of what Gideon or anyone else proposes. But in the process of this debate, as Gideon looks more and more out of touch, Mills will occupy the reasonable middle ground. As Gideon’s proposal goes up in flames, Mills will gain points with working Mainers and will etch in stone her viability as a common-sense centrist.
That is how the pros do it in politics.
We’re not used to this kind of thinking in Augusta. It’s been a long time since anyone actually practiced political strategy in the State House. The LePage administration did most of their legislative maneuvering after bills were passed and sent to the governor’s desk for his signature. LePage confined himself to only one predictable move — the veto — and thus abandoned any possible strategic victory.
It won’t just be her fellow Democrats who provide Mills the opportunity for advantageous contrast. If past is prologue, fringe members of the GOP legislative caucus will likely offer up all kinds of silliness through the course of the next two years. In fact, we’ve already seen one Republican House member start the slapstick routine by proposing a law that would ban certain books from public schools based on a decency standard.
Absurdity at the State House is nothing new, but in Mills we have someone with the wherewithal to use it to her advantage. And in an era where the fringes of both parties have ground progress to a halt, this is a welcome change. Proposing silly legislation should be politically risky, and if Mills plays her part right, being reasonable might once again be rewarded.