The conventional wisdom these days is that Democrats are in trouble while Republicans are soaring, reversing roles from just two years ago. Actually, both of Maine’s major parties are at a defining crossroads today, for entirely different reasons. How each responds in the months ahead will shape the state’s future over the next decade and beyond and go a long way toward deciding the fate of the two-party system here.
It’s easy to see the Democrats’ dilemma in the wake of the widespread losses in the recent elections. While Democratic analysts point to minor tactical mistakes and “spoiler” candidates, the simple truth is that the last election was a wholesale rejection of the policies and priorities of the Democratic Party in Maine.
Depite the good work that Gov. John Baldacci and some more moderate Democrats have done in recent years, during some difficult times, the party is now in disarray, lacking a believable message on the economy and the ideas it needs to reconnect with mainstream independent voters. The only medicine for Democrats, which they seem reluctant to take, is a period of honest and difficult soul-searching to answer some troubling questions. How did the party of the little guy and of forward-looking ideas become the party of government and the defender of the status quo? When did the party become more concerned with the people who are paid by government than the people who pay for government? When did they begin to confuse adding public employees and passing bond issues with growing the economy?
The danger to Democrats is that they are steadily losing their blue-collar base to Republicans and independents, along with the trust and confidence of Maine’s working people, and they had better respond before the cement sets. Without blue-collar voters – their core constituency since the Roosevelt administration – Democrats risk becoming little more than a collection of social and environmental interests and comfortable folks along the coast – with insurmountable electoral math problems.
Historic and seismic shifts are underway in the economy, in the resources available for government and in the public’s perception of Democrats, and the party is not keeping pace. This last election was a warning of things to come without a new Democratic direction. Nineteen percent of voters said yes to Democrats; 81 percent said “no we won’t.”
Before Republicans pop more champagne bottles, though, they should appreciate the thin ice they’re on and reflect on where they were just two short years ago. The public’s affection for Republicans ideas is no deeper than for Democrats, which is why 62 percent of voters voted for someone other than the Republican nominee for governor. People want action on a leaner government and a bigger economy and they don’t much care who delivers it.
The immediate challenge for Republicans is to quickly and effectively transition from the party of opposition to the governing party. History is awash with examples of what happens when parties long out of power suddenly feel the adrenalin surge of control. Skilled rabble-rousers and habitual outsiders rarely handle power well, and tend to misunderstand the ways in which opposition to government are different than actually creating jobs, constructing budgets, fixing pension problems, managing appropriate regulations or maintaining infrastructure. Those challenges require different skills and, more often than not, different people.
Oppositionist newcomers often find it difficult to move beyond “us” and “them” and to broaden their base beyond the familiar. They are more inclined to move in the opposite direction to insulate themselves, reward their friends, over-reach, settle scores and assume an air of entitlement rather than humility. This often produces a series of blunders in the early stages of a new administration, as it tries to push the pendulum too far and sets in motion the machinery of its own future defeat.
For the sake of Maine people, we all wish the new administration well. If they succeed in this transition, and the economy improves on their watch, this will be the beginning of a new era of Republican control of state government. If they fail on either count, given the public’s limited patience, they may well find themselves on the outside looking in quicker than we can say “this election is about change.”
Freeport resident Alan Caron is a lifelong Mainer and Democrat, and the founder and president of Envision Maine, a non-partisan independent think tank. He was recently named to the transition team of Gov.-elect Paul LePage and is the author of a just-released report called “Reinventing Maine Government.”