POLITICS AND OTHER MISTAKES: Extreme circumstances

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I like extremists.

Wait, that didn’t come out quite right.

I’m not talking about the freakazoids trying to kill people in a misguided attempt to make some point that isn’t obvious to anybody but them. It’s entirely possible to be extreme without being homicidal. Or congenitally unclear.

The extremists I like are those with precise – if sometimes goofy – ideas. And I give added points to any extremists who happen to grasp just how unrealistic their expectations are. It’s all well and good to advocate for raising Maine’s minimum wage to 20 bucks an hour, so long as you’re willing to grudgingly compromise at $10 or $12 or $15. Calling for an end to the state income tax is a worthy goal, assuming you have sufficient comprehension of fiscal reality to understand that reducing the top rate from just under 8 percent to 4 or 5 percent is probably the best you’re going to be able to accomplish.

The ugly truth is that extremism is the mother (or maybe – I’m no sexist – the father) of moderation.

Which is not to say moderation is a good thing. I dislike it because it’s wimpy and boring. Reaching consensus on an issue satisfies no one. Compromises rarely solve problems, instead delaying tough decisions until the situation becomes … extreme.

But moderation is about the only way anything gets accomplished in our system of government, so we’re stuck with its mushy mediocrity. The best extremists recognize this inevitable conclusion and attempt to spin their half-baked end-products as triumphs of negotiation and open-mindedness. They recast themselves as moderates intent on governing from the sloppy center.

What’s wrong with that? Nothing, really, except that when extremists pretend to be moderates, their fellow extremists often disown them and shift their positions even further out on the fringe. They become convinced that gridlock is preferable to approving half measures.

They’re probably right. They’re just not realistic.

Take, for example, the case of state Senate President Michael Thibodeau, a Republican from Winterport. Thibodeau is no moderate. But he does play one on TV. As a result, he’s been vilified by his fellow conservatives for being willing to negotiate in situations when the consequences of not doing so would have been dire.

By any reasonable standard of political metrics, Thibodeau is a hard-core right-winger. He’s voted consistently for lower taxes, less government regulation of business and more government regulation of women’s health decisions. He wants all sorts of restrictions on welfare and a lot more traditional family values, by which he means no same-sex marriages or transgendered kids using the wrong public restrooms. Environmentalists don’t like him. Neither do labor unions. The Maine People’s Alliance wouldn’t spit on him if he was on fire.

He’ll never be a finalist for centrist of the year.

Unless his competition is GOP Gov. Paul LePage.

Thibodeau has defied the governor on tax and budgetary issues, but only when it became obvious that doing otherwise would result in a state shutdown. For Thibodeau’s heinous crime of keeping the government operating, LePage has singled him out for defeat by attempting to recruit a more extreme pawn to challenge him in next June’s GOP primary.

LePage’s preferred candidate is Carol Weston of Montville. Weston represented Waldo County in the state Senate before Thibodeau and has since represented the interests of the Koch brothers, billionaire industrialists who fund the local chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which she heads. In other states, the Kochs have engineered the defeat of Republicans dubbed insufficiently extreme.

For his part, Thibodeau seems unperturbed by his revamped image as a middle-of-the-roader. “I get the fact that the governor has an agenda,” he told the Bangor Daily News, “but in a representative democracy there’s a lot of people with ideas. You have to be willing to work with everyone in the process. No one person gets to dictate all aspects of policy.”

You could be excused for thinking Thibodeau has become less interesting since he stopped acting like an extremist. If he keeps making dull statements like that, the public is going to mistake him for Democratic Speaker of the House Mark Eves or Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling or any number of other left-wing extremists who’ve recast themselves as faux-moderates.

Extreme indifference can be expressed by emailing aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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