2014-02-07 / Columns

Politics & other Mistakes

Awful sound
By Al Diamon

There’s still time for the Maine Legislature to take action to prevent another tragedy like the one that hit the state in 2010. Representatives and senators of all ideologies must unite behind an emergency bill to preserve what little integrity remains in our political system.

They should pass a law making it illegal for gubernatorial candidates to debate each other.

Such a measure would probably be challenged in court by free speech advocates, who’d claim it violates the First Amendment. But for that to be true, there’d have to be something resembling speech. And no gubernatorial debate in recent memory has produced so much as a marginally coherent statement. It’s remains an open legal question whether the Constitution protects meaningless babble and annoying whining noises, but I’m willing to take a chance that it doesn’t.

In my journalistic career, I’ve sat through dozens of debates among would-be occupants of the Blaine House without ever hearing an enlightening comment (rude remarks by members of the media excepted). Instead, the candidates relied on platitudes, rehearsed anecdotes and generalized responses designed to make it appear they were responding to any question they didn’t have a real answer for. For instance:

“I believe deeply that kids that grow up in poor towns ought to have the same opportunities as kids that grow up in wealthy towns,” said Democrat Joe Brennan in a 1994 debate. “I’m deeply bothered by a two-tiered system.”

Hard to disagree with that. Even harder to figure out what Brennan might have been proposing.

“If you look at the 21st century, the heart of good jobs is going to rest with education,” independent Gov. Angus King said after being tossed a softball query about something or other in a 1998 forum. “We’ve got to develop what I call low-stress, low-cost entry points.”

What’s that mean? Beats me. And its meaning may have eluded King, as well, because in his second term, he never did get around to creating any “entry points.” His comment sounded like filler worked up by his campaign staff to make sure the televised debate didn’t suffer from too much dead air.

Some debate answers come prepackaged for party nominees to reuse every election cycle. In 2002, Republican Peter Cianchette offered up the standard GOP dogma on improving the business climate. “Right now, we have an economy … that is not only stifled … by a very high tax burden right now, and that’s why I have an aggressive strategy to hold the line on taxes and to actually reduce our taxes over the next five years.”

Syntax problems aside – even current GOP Gov. Paul LePage has said the same thing more succinctly – this is just standard rhetoric, lacking context and details needed to assess whether it means anything. Anybody can say they’ll cut taxes. As LePage has learned (or should have learned by now), it takes more than words to make those kinds of changes.

In 2006, incumbent Democratic Gov. John Baldacci was queried about negative ads targeting his Republican opponent. “I’m glad you asked that question,” Baldacci replied. “I think part of the toughest thing about running for public office is putting yourself out there and be able to take the rough and tumble of that. My mother always used to tell me that she didn’t want to hear me complaining about it, because I ran for office.”

That’s not quite an endorsement of mud-slinging. It’s more like subtly telling the GOP nominee to put on his big boy pants. But whatever it is, it’s not a comment that was likely to help anybody decide how to vote.

Maine’s most recent gubernatorial election in 2010 featured roughly 87,411 debates, during which nothing interesting was said. Although, it could have been. I stopped listening somewhere around debate 48,823, when independent Eliot Cutler explained once again how he’d be different from the other candidates in some unspecified way, Democrat Libby Mitchell repeatedly insisted she’d be different from Baldacci by doing everything just the way he did it, and LePage tried to liven things up by spewing out random phrases. “Libby Mitchell is married to the union bosses and the bureaucracy in Augusta and has been most of her career,” he said. “It’s not about the teachers’ unions. It’s about our children.”

No wonder I prefer questionnaires from special interest groups, which at least attempt to pin candidates down on hot button issues.

This year, Cutler is back, and he’s already called for 16 debates starting almost immediately. Even though LePage and the Democrat’s latest Baldacci clone, Mike Michaud, have both rejected the idea, it would be better if there were some statutory ban in place.

And if that won’t pass, at least limit face-to-face confrontations to a single event in the final week of the campaign.

And require that all participants be naked.

That should provide a nice boost for the radio audience.

Is that your power-point presentation, or are you just glad to see me? Email answers to aldiamon@herniahill.net. No photos, please.

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