Mario Cuomo said, “You campaign in poetry and govern in prose.” But when you watch Janet Mills, you wonder if she got the message.

These days, the Democratic candidate for governor does most of her campaigning in prose.

It’s not that she’s boring. Mills is feisty and funny and she knows state government inside and out.

But when she answers a question, she comes at you with so much policy detail it’s easy to lose the thread. She sounds like she thinks that if she could just talk a little faster and squeeze in a few more words, she would be able to get her message through our thick skulls.

It’s quite a contrast with her chief rival, Republican Shawn Moody. A businessman and political outsider with the perfect Maine accent, Moody makes a virtue of how much he doesn’t know about state government. He speaks in platitudes, leaving the details to be worked out later.

Moody can say that he’s for student loan forgiveness and tuition reimbursement, which sounds great until you realize that’s going to cost a lot of money and he’s not into spending. Mills will tell you what really needs to be done is sweetening the Opportunity Maine tax credit program.

She’s probably right, and if you had to place a bet on which one of these promises was more achievable, your money would be on Mills’. But if you are a recent graduate worried about your debt load, which one of those proposals is going to make you feel better right now: a complicated tax credit or a confident promise that the guy in charge of the state is going to take care of you? When you are worried about your future, you’d like a little poetry.

Cautious underpromising is a hallmark of moderate politicians, especially moderate Democrats, who are always fighting the perception that they are irresponsible spendthrifts. But it seems to be an especially difficult problem for women running for office.

Would a woman who had never as much as run for the school committee be able to jump to the front of the class, as Moody has, no matter how much money she had made in business? Would a female candidate get over by saying, as Moody has, that we already have universal health care in Maine because of uncompensated care provided in emergency rooms and volunteer clinics? Or that the answer to our workforce shortage is to let teenagers work longer hours?

Mills knows her stuff, and she make sure you know that she knows it, even if you have to take her word for it at times because you’ve been blinded by a blizzard of details. Sometimes she strips out all the context from her answers so she can squeeze in a little more information. You could get the impression that she’s more interested in the programs she’s talking about than the people who depend on programs.

Maybe the contrast between Mills and Moody has nothing to do with gender, and this is just a case of two different people who have walked different roads in life. But anyone who has been following the news these last few weeks knows that men and women play by different rules when they enter the public arena.

Men are allowed to be emotional, especially if the emotion is anger.

Check out the reaction Republicans had to Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s teary rant before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Of course he’s mad, they said. The Democrats are trying to ruin his life – anyone would respond that way.

But imagine if his accuser Christine Blasey Ford had sat down and screamed at the Republican senators who wanted to confirm Kavanaugh without ever listening to her story. What if she had alternated weeping and snarling, throwing any question she didn’t like back in the questioner’s face. (“What about you, senator? You ever forget anything?”)

She would have been written off as a kook. No one would be praising her “passion.”

Even though Mills is from small-town Maine, she is never going to be folksier than Moody, and she probably won’t win the “nice guy” award, either. But if she showed a flash of anger in their debates while explaining how his proposals could affect people, would she be rewarded for “telling it like it is” or written off as “too emotional”?

The funny thing is, Mills stands out among Maine politicians as somebody who actually likes poetry.

She reads and she writes it. But when she’s at a debate, she’s not campaigning in it.

 

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