Talk about being called ugly by a toad.
Up in Maine, Senators Angus King and Susan Collins have just been blasted as “dangerous,” “out of touch” politicians who cast “disgusting” votes against repealing Obamacare because they are “more interested in preening for the cameras than making real progress.”
All that from Maine motormouth Paul LePage, the state’s bombastic blunderbuss of a governor.
From Margaret Chase Smith to Ed Muskie to Bill Cohen to George Mitchell to Olympia Snowe, the Pine Tree State has a tradition of producing serious, substantive senators whose influence outstrips that of a state where the population numbers only 1.3 million. King, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, and Collins, the Senate’s most moderate Republican, are heirs to that tradition of high-minded elected officials.
Paul LePage, alas, is not. Not even close. He’s a crude, combative, bullying embarrassment who thrives on conflict and racially tinged remarks. A my-way-or-the-highway know-it-all, he is regularly at war in his state. The press is one frequent target, the legislature another. (He’s spent his second term sulking and vetoing bills in an attempt to force lawmakers to back his plan to eliminate the state income tax.) Mind you, it’s not just other politicians of whom he’s dismissive. In November, voters passed a tax hike on higher earners to fund education spending. LePage and State House Republicans refused to implement it. Maine voters were apparently out of touch with themselves.
Since the GOP’s seven-year effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act crashed back on the launching pad, the pugnacious LePage has been on the warpath against King and Collins, accusing them of hurting hard-pressed Mainers by voting no. That, even though the Congressional Budget Office’s analyses showed that the GOP’s various alternatives would spike costs for older people and leave millions without coverage.
Those effects are why George Mitchell, Maine’s senior statesman, says King and Collins got it right. “It is incredible to me that anyone from Maine could be supportive of such legislation, because among the groups most adversely affected would be the elderly, those living in rural areas, and working families with low incomes,” Mitchell told me. “That defines a very large part of Maine’s population.”
So what, exactly, is LePage up to? One longtime political observer dismisses his attack as an effort by a term-limited governor to remain relevant in his last year and a half in office. Of course, he could also be staging an informal audition for a spot in Donald Trump’s administration.
Certainly if the ACA lives on, LePage’s own limited legacy is in danger. With LePage repeatedly casting a veto, Maine is the only state in the Northeast, and one of 19 in the nation, not to take advantage of the ACA’s generous funding to expand Medicaid. But a proposal to bring about that expansion is headed for the 2018 ballot; its passage would obliterate the governor’s most consequential policy stand.
Others fear LePage is once again weighing a 2018 challenge to King, something he’s mulled previously before backing away. The mild-mannered King is considerably more popular than the polarizing governor, but LePage has made a career of winning with pluralities in multi-candidate races. That’s how he became mayor of Waterville and how he won election and reelection as governor. If LePage were the GOP Senate nominee in 2018, and a well-funded Democrat lefty siphoned off more than 20 percent of the vote, the independent senator could face serious turbulence. (LePage might have an easier route: If Susan Collins runs for governor in 2018, wins, and later resigns her Senate seat, LePage could have an opportunity to appoint himself as her replacement.)
If so, Mainers will have to think strategically. The Senate would benefit greatly from more figures like King and Collins, who are politically and personally inclined toward compromise. As LePage likes to brag, he was Donald Trump before Donald Trump. The last thing that state or this country needs is to have the president’s Maine mini-me plunked into a Senate that barely functions as it is.Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.