Down East 2013 ©
The biggest problem Governor Paul LePage faces isn’t the Legislature. His party has a majority in both Houses.
It isn’t a budget deficit, something he proved by introducing a budget that increases spending while cutting taxes, mostly on Maine’s wealthy.
The problem isn’t his Democratic opposition, unions, environmentalists or public interest groups. They’ll work to stop some of his policies, but they no longer have the muscle to set the agenda in Augusta.
No, LePage’s biggest problem is his own fundamental lack of understanding of the optics of his office and his lack of ability to communicate effectively on his agenda.
I don’t think this is a surprise to anyone who has been reading Maine newspapers or watching the Daily Show. On issue after issue, from his “little beards” comment on environmental health policies, to the recent attack on a historic mural that brought a new focus to his policies on workers’ rights, to his exempting his own pension from his proposed cutbacks, highlighting the unfairness of his budget, LePage has hit exactly the wrong note on a wide range of his objectives and has given his opponents powerful and colorful symbols to illustrate and attack his policies.
It's clear, for instance, that advocates for Mainers of color found themselves with a new microphone when LePage chose the week of Martin Luther King Day to say “kiss my butt” to the NAACP.
Even the argument that LePage and his supporters have used to defend his actions and outbursts, that he doesn’t do things for political reasons and doesn’t care how he’s portrayed in the press, took a hit from some of his own actions. It’s hard to think of a more ostentatious political stunt than erecting a new highway sign on the border with New Hampshire declaring that Maine is now “Open for Business” thanks to LePage.
His message was further muddied when it was revealed that the sign was paid for by the Tea Party and made in Alabama , rather than Maine.
From a communications perspective, the reason these headline-making actions and statements are important is that they galvanize Maine’s moderates and progressives and allow those opposed to LePage’s agenda to package his policies for easy public consumption. It’s difficult to explain the details of environmental studies, or the intricacies of collective bargaining laws. It’s easier to make an argument on these issues if you can start by talking about beards and murals.
LePage’s opponents have to be careful, however, that they don’t mistake the flash for the substance. They shouldn’t put all their energy into defending (or, at this point, finding ) the mural itself, for instance, to the point that they ignore the more important policy issues on workers’ rights.
All this prompts the question: “Why doesn’t LePage’s staff save him from himself?” Even if the governor is politically tone deaf, he has some smart people working for him who should be trying to rein him in. If that’s not working, it’s because LePage is either unwilling or unable to change, both of which are troubling.
This morning brings the latest example of this dynamic. I wonder if anyone told Maine's chief executive that leaving for a week-long vacation in Jamaica  in the middle of the legislative session and after having been in office for less than three months might send the wrong message about his commitment to his job and to the state. I wonder what he told them in reply.