End-of-session votes are often dramatic, but they rarely carry quite the weighty consequences of the ones which took place as Republicans joined Democrats to override Gov. Paul LePage’s veto of the biennial state budget, something that’s never happened before.
Thus begins a struggle for the definition of the Republican Party in Maine, with the outcome only becoming clear after several election cycles.
On one side is LePage and the tea party forces that have become dominant in Washington – the “my way or the highway,” the “never compromise, never give in” school of politics.
Until this week, LePage apparently thought he could do what he had done many times already – convince GOP lawmakers to switch their votes and back him on override votes. LePage has issued a record 51 vetoes, four more than independent James Longley during the 1977 session, and most have been sustained, but that’s misleading.
On two of the three biggest bills of the session – the budget and the omnibus energy bill – Republicans deserted him; only on Medicaid did he get sufficient backing. LePage has been marginalized – marginalized himself, really – in a way that’s likely to be fatal to his re-election bid next year.
When LePage realized, after initial votes to enact the budget, that the game was up, he flirted with the idea of seeking the 2nd District Congressional seat about to be given up by Democrat Mike Michaud, now all but certain to enter the 2014 governor’s race.
That would please both Democrats and Republicans – Democrats because LePage would be the perfect opponent. In a two-way race, he’d have no chance. His thin hope of being re-elected governor rests entirely on another split of the opposition in a three-way race.
And it would please Republicans because it would remove a millstone around their necks in state elections. LePage was the biggest factor in the rout Republican legislators suffered in 2012, and will continue to be a drag on their fortunes.
The divide was crystallized in a remarkable speech Wednesday on the House floor by Republican leader Ken Fredette, who offered a political science lesson as well as an acute analysis of the divergent paths ahead for his party.
Fredette began with a homely analogy about shopping for a car, and the dickering that occurs over the sales price between purchaser and dealer. He concluded, “If I stick stubbornly to my initial position and don’t budge I’ll end up without a car.”
He didn’t mention LePage, and didn’t have to. The governor issued his budget plan in January, which involved massive cuts in state aid to municipalities, forcing them to raise taxes because he didn’t want to. He budged not an inch between then and June, which is why his last minute call for a continuing resolution, probably unconstitutional, fell flat.
Fredette went on to outline when compromise is necessary, and when lawmakers can properly stick to their principles. For an “optional proposal” – he mentioned charter schools and worker’s compensation – it’s OK to hold firm. But when something has to happen – such as a budget – compromise is essential.
And he went on to issue a startling warning to his colleagues: “The Republican Party was a successful party when we had a big, welcoming tent. The level of vitriol I have witnessed and the circular firing squads I have seen among Republicans cannot stand.”
This aligns Fredette with other legislators, such as Senate assistant Republican leader Roger Katz, who contend that compromise is not always a vice, and against those, like LePage, who simply will not recognize there’s a political opposition they must come to terms with.
It also, on a national level, associates him with former Senate Majority Leader and presidential nominee Bob Dole, who recently said Republicans should put out a “closed for repairs” sign until they can get their act together.
Paul LePage has demonstrated since before he was inaugurated that he lacks the temperament, knowledge and political skills to be an effective governor. The tide of resentment and anger among voters that propelled him to victory in 2010 has receded.
The differing outcomes of U.S. Senate races in Massachusetts confirms this, from Scott Brown’s upset win over Democrat Martha Coakley in 2010, his defeat by Elizabeth Warren in 2012, and last Tuesday’s win by old Democratic hand Ed Markey for Secretary of State John Kerry’s Senate seat.
Ken Fredette has, perhaps wisely, taken himself out of consideration for the 2nd District seat; 2014 is unlikely to be a good year for Maine Republicans. How they pick up the pieces afterward will be one of the more interesting political stories of our time.
Douglas Rooks is a former daily and weekly newspaper editor who has covered the State House for 28 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.