There’s nothing quite like the feeling of waking up the morning after Election Day forced to reckon with the vast gulf that separates you from your fellow citizens. Remember November 3, 2004—the day after George W. Bush was reelected? The most epic of hangovers feels like nothing next to the utter sense of alienation that follows the realization that a majority of American voters are okay with a costly war based on lies, more tax cuts for the rich, the shredding of basic civil liberties, and the cynical opposition to gay marriage as a strategy to motivate the Republican base.
Paul LePage has never come anywhere close to winning the support of the majority of Mainers, but if he’s reelected on November 4 that fact won’t remedy the stinging awareness that Maine voters gave their approval to slashing the social safety net, shifting the tax burden onto those who can least afford it, corrupting state agencies with incompetent political hacks, and governing with contempt and obstructionism.
Fortunately, the fate of our state is not solely determined by the person who assumes the role of governor. It would be understandable, though, for voters to think otherwise, because virtually everyone involved in Maine politics has taken to inflating the power of the governor in the state’s political system. Democratic legislators use the governor’s intransigence as an excuse for their own failings while the governor’s opponents make grandiose claims about their ability to transform Maine into a national leader on clean energy and “the breadbasket of New England.” LePage, meanwhile, fashions himself as a CEO turning around a failed company and touts the state’s increasing job growth (which pitifully lags other states) as evidence that being “open for business” is working.
The truth is that governors have relatively little control over the state’s economy, and their power is fairly limited in many other areas too. Federal policy and macroeconomic trends are much more important. The loss of more than 500 jobs due to the closure of the Verso paper mill in Bucksport, for instance, had nothing much to do with LePage (contrary to his opponents’ claims) and a lot to do with the declining demand for paper products as digital text displaces the printed word. The Federal Reserve, which determines interest rates for the whole country, probably has a more profound impact on Maine’s economy than the governor.
LePage should not be excused for stubbornly impeding economic progress in Maine, but it’s far-fetched to suggest Maine’s economy would be thriving if Libby Mitchell or Eliot Cutler had been governor for the last four years. And if Michaud or Cutler is elected this year, the big economic challenges facing the state—an aging population, low wages, high energy costs, inadequate infrastructure, an underfunded education system—will hardly be diminished by any of the policies they are proposing.
There’s no doubt the stakes are high in this race, especially for those most in need, such as the 70,000 Mainers who have no health insurance due to LePage’s refusal to expand Medicaid. But whether or not LePage wins on November 4, we will be left with a broken political system—at both the state and national levels—that’s incapable of addressing the enormous challenges posed by deeply-rooted problems like soaring economic inequality, climate change, and money-saturated politics.