Politics & Other Mistakes: Picking a target

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The easiest way for a candidate to become Maine’s next governor is to convince voters that all their troubles are somebody else’s fault.

That’s the legacy of current governor, Republican Paul LePage, whose boogeymen are welfare recipients and immigrants, and President Donald Trump, who blames everything on immigrants and the news media.

In the opinions expressed by these sorts of politicians, solving all Maine’s problems requires nothing more than cutting off food stamps and housing vouchers for one group, and shipping the other bunch back where they came from. Overnight, there’d be good jobs, fast broadband and cooler ocean waters.

In reality, few of the problems faced by average Mainers can be traced to either welfare or immigration. People on the dole are not responsible for stagnant wages, lack of high-speed internet or climate change. Recently arrived foreigners bear no responsibility for health-care costs, the exodus of young people or sexual harassment of women.

Unfortunately, complicated issues are rarely resolved by simple-minded solutions. But solving problems has never been what political campaigns are about, because it’s impossible to entice millennials, provide affordable medical care or convince men not to be pigs in a sound bite that will energize voters. Better to stick with what works:

Find somebody to demonize.

While this scapegoating strategy is usually employed by right-wingers, it’s by no means exclusive to them. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mark Eves recently embraced the concept. Being a liberal, Eves needed a straw man (or, because he’s politically correct, a straw woman) that his base already viewed negatively. That ruled out the usual targets of demagoguery: religions, races, intellectuals, sexual minorities, the Illuminati.

What’s left?

Guns. More specifically, gun lobbyists, such as the National Rifle Association.

“There is one thing we don’t need here in Maine: the NRA,” Eves wrote in an op-ed published last month in the Portland Press Herald. “Stay out of our state. We don’t want you here. You’ve done enough. And we’ve had enough.”

If you skipped that first sentence, you might think Eves was talking about welfare recipients or immigrants. The language used to attack these political crash-test dummies is always pretty similar.

Other resemblances: Like poor people or refugees, the NRA isn’t to blame for Maine’s serious problems. And like the disadvantaged and displaced, the NRA isn’t particularly influential around here.

Make no mistake, gun owners have a powerful presence at the State House through the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine. But SAM’s agenda differs significantly from the NRA’s, dealing with stuff like wildlife habitat and clean water, as well as guns. SAM doesn’t put much effort into fighting legislation banning bump stocks or large-capacity magazines, because those sorts of bills have nothing to do with hunting. The Gun Owners of Maine does carry some of the NRA’s water, but GOM’s focus is on personal protection and privacy. They mostly want state government to leave them alone. (The NRA does fund gun safety courses put on by local groups.)

These organizations hardly justify Eves’ claim that, “If you’re a politician in Maine, one of the first things you learn is that you’re supposed to be careful about how you talk about guns. Come on too strong, and the gun lobby will come and get you.”

Defiant words, except Eves is from southern Maine, where shooters have little influence. His diatribe against the NRA will undoubtedly be negatively received in rural northern parts of the state, but nobody there is going to vote for Eves, anyway.

In recent elections, the NRA has spent about $1.2 million on Maine political activities. Of that, $1.1 million went to defeat a poorly constructed referendum on background checks that would have required clearance by that system before someone could loan a rifle to a hunting companion. Contributions to candidates are limited, with the biggest beneficiary of NRA largesse being 2nd District GOP U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, who has received a total of $16,850 over the last couple of election cycles.

No matter how you feel about “red-flag” laws, assault-weapon bans, waiting periods or requiring trigger locks with firearm purchases, the NRA has relatively little to do with whether such restrictions become law in Maine. Those decisions are made by Mainers, many of whom are gun owners and some of whom are NRA members.

These people are no more responsible than the rest of us for the state’s problems with its economy, infrastructure or human-services bureaucracy. Making them cardboard-cutout villains in the gubernatorial campaign, as Eves is trying to do, is pointless. And it’s petty politics at its worst.

Shoot off your mouth by emailing aldiamon@herniahill.net.