POLITICS AND OTHER MISTAKES – Easily distracted

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Contrary to popular belief, Republican Gov. Paul LePage is not an idiot.

Sure, LePage acts like one from time to time – on average, about twice a week, so far – but we’ve all said and done a few things we later regretted, particularly when they later generated a couple hundred thousand hits on YouTube. (For the record, that wasn’t a real goat, all members of the boys choir were over 18, and the MRI machine wasn’t stolen. It was borrowed and returned in reasonably good condition. Except for a couple of stains in hard-to-reach places. Also, I have no idea how Condoleezza Rice ended up in that closet dressed in a cheerleader outfit.)

But back to LePage. When he was campaigning for office last year, he seemed to have a clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish. “I’m running for governor of the state of Maine for one and one purpose only,” he told Maine Public Radio, “to fix the mess that we’re in …. Any other, the other issues, if somebody wants to change the laws, then they can do it with the governor after me, because that’s not my agenda.”

LePage didn’t alter his theme once he got elected. The governor’s page on the state website says, “An attention to detail, focus on the big picture and a zeal for efficiency are business attributes that Governor LePage brings to public service at the municipal and now the State level.”

Dan Demeritt, LePage’s communications director, wrote a letter to the Kennebec Journal in March that emphasized how the governor and his budget advisors were “focused on the big-ticket reforms” and had no time to dally with “relatively small” matters, such as whether LePage should be required to pay the same increased contribution to the state pension system that he’s asking regular state workers to make.

“We looked at the big pots of money to try and solve as many problems as we could and we didn’t play politics with it,” Demeritt told WABI-TV.

The LePage mantras: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Keep your eyes on the prize. Avoid distractions. Remember the Maine. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Exercise regularly. Hey, look, whoopie pies.

Unfortunately for the governor, actions speak louder than a bunch of clichés or the frequent tortured clarifications from his beleaguered aides. His first three months in office have been a case study in why voters should think twice about electing someone who appears to be suffering from adult attention-deficit disorder.

While LePage claims to be working flat out on the state’s financial and regulatory problems, he somehow still has plenty of space in his schedule to appear on Howie Carr’s radio program in Boston. He’s got time to star in his own cable TV show, make uninformed comments about the safety of the chemical bisphenol-A, and issue an ill-timed threat to veto the budget before negotiations between the parties have even begun. He can always find a few hours to slap up a meaningless “Open For Business” sign on the Maine Turnpike, make threatening noises toward labor unions about right-to-work legislation, attend carefully staged “Capital for a Day” events, and avoid holding a promised meeting with the NAACP.

And this week, he’s vacationing with his family in Jamaica.

In his first 90 days in office, LePage’s only real accomplishment has been to have a mural depicting the history of the labor movement in Maine removed from a state office lobby, thereby producing national publicity of the sort that’s unlikely to find its way into any tourism brochures. (“Attention Fat Cats: Vacation in Maine without the worry of being inadvertently subjected to pro-union artwork”).

Since he became governor, LePage has managed to generate regular doses of controversy over matters of no importance to the state’s economy. Or much of anything else.

It’s possible LePage has engaged in these tactics as part of a carefully orchestrated maneuver designed to distract the news media from making a detailed examination of his budget. But the Maine media have never needed that much distraction to find ways to avoid any heavy lifting.

Perhaps the mural flap was intended to lure artists, poets, and union members into expending all their energies fighting what turned out to be a minor skirmish in the culture wars.

Or maybe the explanation is nowhere near that complicated. It could be LePage really is the kind of guy who can’t stop himself from flailing away at any random target that happens to come in his sights, like a hyped-up radio talk-show host after a six pack of Red Bull and a handful of prescription meds.

This problem isn’t about the governor’s ideology. It’s about his lack of political savvy and self-restraint. And given how many public-relations disasters LePage has repeatedly created, it’s also about the absence of a learning curve.

LePage isn’t an idiot.

But he does play one on TV.

And he’s becoming more believable in the role all the time.

No, I won’t give you Condi Rice’s cell number. But I will answer more reasonable email requests sent to aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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