This is a tough time to be a fiscal moderate, meaning someone who neither hates nor loves government but simply wants it to work better, focus on expanding opportunity for everyone and do what it does best without bankrupting the taxpayers.
The political world, these days, seems to have assembled itself into just two opposing views, leaving fiscal moderates out in the cold. The folks on the far right hate government and want every part of it cut, except the parts that fund the military. A smaller group on the far left clings to the idea that government is the miracle cure for everything, and that hiring public employees is what people mean when they clamor for a better economy. Unfortunately, both groups have an outsized influence on their respective parties.
The current election for governor poses particular problems for fiscal moderates. They support a lot of what incumbent Gov. Paul LePage has been doing to rein in government, but don’t like the rest of the package that goes with it, including LePage’s rigid ideology, embarrassing leadership style and indifference to facts.
Democratic challenger Mike Michaud is a consideration for some. He’s been a self-described moderate for most of his career, but he also represents a party that has had a long and deeply entangled relationship with public employee unions, most of which aren’t that big on change. Only time will tell how he balances those competing pressures.
Independent candidate Eliot Cutler seems to be a true fiscal moderate, combining LePage’s insistence on change and Michaud’s compassion for people, but hasn’t yet escaped his “electability” challenge, driven by low polling numbers.
It’s hard to appreciate how many fiscal moderates there are in Maine, mostly because they don’t make nearly as much noise as activists on the left and right. They aren’t angry about everything and looking to poke people in the eye all the time. And they generally don’t subscribe to the absurd view that their ideas represent salvation and righteousness while the views of others are the road to ruin.
Fiscal moderates have been an under-appreciated but powerful force in Maine politics for a long time. A half-century ago both parties were anchored by fiscal moderates of one sort or another. Those parties were contentious and spirited, but they also were open enough to include both moderates and the louder but smaller elements of the right and left.
Fiscal moderates were then, as they are now, the common-sense core that tethered the parties to reality and created the opportunity to forge compromise solutions to America’s problems. Today, they’re hardly welcome in either party.
If there is going to be a “swing vote” in this upcoming election for governor, it will be these disaffected fiscal moderates. But where will they ultimately land in this three-way race, if they land anywhere?
Unlike other recent races for governor, this race doesn’t present any clear and easy answers, at least for now. That’s left fiscal moderates, for now at least, splitting in all directions, even though they could be united behind a LePage alternative.
â€¢ Sticking with LePage. Some are holding their noses and leaning toward LePage, until any viable option emerges.
â€¢ Leaning to Michaud. Many could end up with Michaud, particularly if he signals that he understands that government needs to change and modernize.
â€¢ Watching Cutler. Another group is either with Cutler through thick and thin or keeping a close eye on him to see if he can climb in polling. If Cutler hasn’t moved by mid-October, the urgency to defeat LePage will put them in play again.
â€¢ Sitting on the fence. The largest group seems to be waiting for the real race to start after Labor Day, to observe the candidates in face-to-face debates and see if any of them falter.
Beyond November, and over the longer term, fiscal moderates are increasingly finding themselves among the politically homeless. They’re clearly not welcome among tea party Republicans, who despise moderation as much as they do government. And, they’re not much more welcome among Democrats. It’s no accident that in both parties, fiscal moderates seldom survive a primary.
The political parties had better wise up to this problem of fiscal moderates adrift. Unless one of them finds a way to become a “big tent” again, we’ll not only see more independent candidates, we might see the emergence of a new “common-sense” political party, which could become a home not just for displaced fiscal moderates, but for dissatisfied voters in general.
Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization working to promote Maine’s next economy, and co-author of an upcoming book titled “Maine’s Next Economy.” Email at [email protected]