Every endeavor has its lingo, a language that people in the field use as code. A vogue word in the lingo of political operatives these days is “optics.”

It’s probably just a new word for an old concern. Did your parents caution you about what you look like when you, say, dye your hair purple or wear your jeans below your butt crack or don’t tuck in your shirt?

“What will people think when they see you looking like that?” That’s optics.

Today’s Democrats are almost giddy with newfound power. In Washington the power of sharing government with the Republicans, in Augusta the power of total control of the state government.

The Washington set of Democrats is playing its new cards smartly, the Augusta set not so much. Admittedly, Washington Democrats have an easier job, even though they hold only two of the four power cards. They control the House of Representatives while the Republicans control the Senate and the White House. But the Democrats also have a veto over many Senate bills that require a super-majority (three-fifths) to pass.

Washington’s Democrats have a terrific ally, too. The smart ones know that President Trump is his own worst enemy. Often, as in the recent 35-day federal shutdown, they know they can sit back and watch Trump fire away on his Twitter feed, sending out Tweets that betray his ignorance and uninterest about how to run the country.


Or, even better, meet him with the cameras rolling. He’s bound to say something so stupid that even his handlers can’t walk it back. On Dec. 11, meeting with House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer, Trump said, “If we don’t get what we want . . . I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck.” What he wanted was a wall along the border with Mexico.

Along about the 30th day of the shutdown, polls that had shown all along that most Americans blamed Trump for the shutdown started showing him losing support even among his so-called base.

He had already lost support among white women without college degrees, especially in the suburbs, and we saw Democrats turning up in the House from solid Republican states such as Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas. And flipping Iowa from 3-1 GOP to 3-1 Democratic. Oh, yeah, and flipping our second district to Jared Golden from Bruce — “I’ll be in the bathroom if you need me” — Poliquin.

So far, House Democrats led by Pelosi have tempered their giddiness by focusing on just a few major issues. Border wall. Shutdown. Troop withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan. Pelosi, the skilled speaker who largely wrote the Affordable Care Act nicknamed after Barack Obama and then lined up every Democrat to vote for it, even some of whom lost their seats because of those votes, has kept her troops in line.

(True, a band of Democrats just set out some ideas that the Republicans will quickly jump on as “socialist,” ideas to move the country quickly to renewable energy, guarantee jobs for all, etc., but the Democratic leaders are more temperate with their new power.)

While I agreed with Golden that it was time for the Democrats to choose new leadership in Washington, I recognize that she did in less than a month what 300 Republicans in Congress hadn’t done in two years. She stood up to Trump, and he backed down.


So long as Trump is there, the Washington Democrats need only stand aside and wait for him to shoot himself in the foot. Maybe he’ll hit that pesky “bone spur” that daddy’s doc found to keep young Trump out of Vietnam. Given his age and physical condition, I doubt Trump needs the “bone spur” any longer.

Would that the Democrats in Augusta showed so much restraint as Pelosi and her aides.

Many of us recognized at the start of the new times in Augusta that Gov. Janet Mills’s toughest challenge would come from fellow Democrats, especially what we might call the Portland West End liberals, who believe that all of Maine looks like Danforth Street.

Consider these bills already submitted. Mandatory paid family leave. State funding for abortions. Requiring winter tires on all vehicles. Popular national vote for president (eliminate the electoral college). New name for Columbus Day. And more. It seems that every few days, the front page of the Sun Journal has another story about another bill introduced by another Democrat to ratchet up Augusta’s role another notch.

There may be strong arguments for each of these bills, but taken together their optics are too much, too soon. Let’s fix the government first. This bundle of bills may scare off lots of moderate voters who used their ballots to get rid of the tint of Paul LePage more than to sweep the Danforth Street crowd into power. Didn’t they hear Mills in the campaign pledge no tax increases during her first two years?

Mills, to her credit, has focused more on the job at hand. Do something more than yak-yak about the opioid crisis, for one. Put into effect the expanded MaineCare (Medicaid) that voters approved and LePage stalled, for a second.

Plenty of basic tasks remain. The mess that is the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, got worse under LePage. His idea of fixing the department, which among other things has spent tens of millions of dollars on computers that don’t work, was to tell it not to do its job. Mills will achieve a lot if she fixes just that one department. We could all love the optics of a functioning state government.

Bob Neal believes change is inevitable and beneficial. He also believes slow change is the longest-lasting change. Engage brain before engaging mouth.

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