In the current legislative fight over Republican Governor Paul LePage's lust to slash Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) programs because of a $221-million shortfall in its budget, Democrats say over and over that they want to protect the poor, sick, and disabled people from whom the governor wants to withdraw state assistance.
Democratic politicians publicly wrung their hands in December when the Appropriations Committee held hearings on LePage's plan to cut hundreds of millions of dollars — and 65,000 human beings — from MaineCare, the federal/state health-care program for the poor that nationally is called Medicaid.
The testimony featured widely publicized horror stories. One older, disabled man who spoke against the cuts later told columnist Bill Nemitz, according to Nemitz's poignant Portland Press Herald account, "I was going to tell them to take all of us useless people out front here and just shoot us. That's my solution. Then we won't be a burden to them."
Nemitz also quoted Representative Margaret Rotundo's response to the hearings: "I felt this mixture of anger and shame." Rotundo, of Lewiston, is the lead Democrat on Appropriations.
Her committee colleague, Democratic Representative David Webster, of Freeport, said, in the next paragraph: "You can't say, 'These people don't produce enough for me, so they're not going to be my customers anymore.' That's okay in business because it's your job. But it's not okay in government."
But there's another side to this story. The Democrats are not just sensitive to the needs of the poor; they're also sensitive to the needs of the rich, and that has big consequences for the poor.
When the Phoenix asked Rotundo if raising taxes on the rich might be an alternative to severe cuts in social services, she responded flatly, "The people of Maine are not interested in a tax increase."
Webster, interviewed with Rotundo, gave a typical reaction of many Democrats to talk of boosting taxes on the well-off. It would hurt "economic recovery," he murmured.
That point of view is called Trickle Down: if we give money to the rich and their corporations, they will dribble down benefits to working people, for the well-off are the "job creators," as the GOP cliché has it. This philosophy is almost universally accepted among Republicans, but it's also widely accepted among Democratic politicians.
For legislative Democrats, the attempt to help the poor and the rich at the same time gives them, in psychological language, a split personality or Multiple Personality Disorder, "the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states . . . that recurrently take control of behavior," according to a psychiatric manual.
The Republicans say the Democrats are the tax-and-spend party. But that's not the case. The Democrats do want to spend, but they don't want to tax. Because this math doesn't compute, their attitude helps create the perpetual fiscal shortfalls that have come to define Maine government. Since Democrats mostly controlled the Legislature for decades, they bear considerable responsibility for the shortfalls, including the present DHHS one.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
For decades the Democrats were the party of social and economic reform, from the New Deal of President Roosevelt in the 1930s, which saw the establishment of Social Security and unemployment insurance, to the Great Society of President Johnson in the 1960s and the creation of Medicare and Medicaid.