I’ve offered a lot of unsolicited advice in these columns to Gov. Paul LePage and the Republicans, and now I want to extend the same courtesy to Democrats.
In 2010, many Democrats were gleeful about the Republican Party’s nomination of LePage for governor, simultaneously underestimating LePage and over-valuing their own statewide support. Since then, Democrats have described LePage as little more than a mathematical fluke, and seem baffled that his core support hasn’t evaporated, despite his many glaring deficiencies.
What they seem to miss is that LePage represents a deep current of frustration with the direction the state has been taking. It is a frustration that Democrats still struggle to acknowledge or understand.
After LePage’s victory, Democrats promised to do some “soul searching,” but that process never seemed to go very deep. Instead, they focused on perfecting their campaign mechanics and trying to drive off independents.
In 2012, they proved that with LePage as a bogeyman they could win local elections and retook control of the Legislature. Winning local battles, however, is not the same as winning widespread support. In statewide races, Democrats haven’t won a majority since George Mitchell left office.
Many Democrats say that’s all the fault of independents, but could it be that more independents are running because Democrats haven’t responded to what the public is asking for?
The answer to that question would require some real soul-searching by Democrats. Without it, they may defeat LePage this year, but that won’t keep the next LePage — with far better skills — from emerging a few years from now.
So what do Democrats need to do? They could start by listening better. The voters are looking for something that they’re not sure the Democrats can deliver: real change. (Sound familiar?) Specifically, they want change in two areas: the economy and government.
Republicans offer strong prescriptions for both, right or wrong. Democrats respond with a basket of ideas such as raising the minimum wage, increasing bonding, expanding eligibility for programs, taxing the rich and occasionally tinkering with government efficiency.
There may be merit in some of those ideas, but together they hardly amount to a road map for transformative change.
Why can’t Democrats, who are proud of being the party of progress, present a more compelling vision for the next economy and for a 21st century government? Part of the answer is that Democrats concern themselves too little with the private-sector economy and too much with government. That has left them playing defense on both.
After a half-century of a stagnant economy and a growing government, Mainers have signaled their displeasure with both parties by electing two independent governors and nearly electing a third. They have legitimate gripes about where we’re headed, and those complaints aren’t going away.
So here is some advice for Democrats:
â€¢ Spend more time on new directions and less on political tactics.
â€¢ When you present yourselves as the champion of the “little guy” make sure that you’re including not only workers and people who receive government benefits but also taxpayers and small businesses.
â€¢ Get behind the small business economy in Maine, not by building more government programs but by giving small businesses the tools and direct support that we give to every big business that promises a few new jobs.
â€¢ Stop protecting archaic bureaucracies in government and making excuses for inefficiency.
â€¢ Take the lead on the work of modernizing government, so that the job doesn’t end up being done by others using wrecking balls.
In 2010, I co-authored a small book called “Reinventing Maine Government.” Many of my liberal friends were aghast. But Democrats should read the book, just as the LePage team did. It wasn’t written out of any hostility toward government, but with the understanding that we can’t grow the economy unless we free up resources through greater efficiency.
The takeaway from that book is troubling: As a percentage of our income, we spend more on government than either the national average or similar rural states. And we spend it in the wrong places. We invest less in higher education and economic development, for instance, in part because we spend more on Band-Aids. That is an unsustainable path to a false prosperity.
When the economy is roaring, the public puts up with inefficiency in government. But when the next recession comes, as it will, if Democrats haven’t done more to respond to the public’s call for real change, then we should all prepare ourselves for the rise of LePage 2.0.
Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is a partner in the Caron and Egan Consulting Group, and president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization working to promote Maine’s next economy. He can be reached at [email protected]