The Man Who Would Be Governor

Governor LePage speaking at his second inauguration

Governor LePage speaking at his second inauguration

Paul LePage, Maine’s Governor, is a colorful—and controversial—political figure. His occasionally outrageous comments have undoubtedly gotten him into trouble with the press; Politico once called him “America’s Craziest Governor,” while The Atlantic deems him “America’s Most Outlandish Governor.” At the other end of the spectrum, LePage is beloved by grassroots conservatives in Maine and across the country and was recently reelected by a larger than expected margin. There is much that can be said supporting or opposing his aggressive political style and staunchly conservative policies. Mike Tipping’s As Maine Went: Governor Paul LePage and the Tea Party Takeover of Maine is one such book that criticizes LePage and his tenure as governor. Yet unfortunately, Tipping misses the mark, as his progressive leanings overpower any reasonable attempt at fact-finding.

Throughout As Maine Went, Tipping’s analysis reads more like opposition research than investigative reporting. Tipping immediately poisons the well against LePage, ensuring that the reader will be colored by an anti-LePage bias before he proceeds to his subsequent claims. The first chapter hurls accusations about LePage’s meetings with the Maine Constitutional Coalition, an alleged extremist group affiliated with the Sovereign Citizens, an anti-government domestic terrorist movement. Tipping asserts that Coalition members “consider themselves ‘Sovereign Citizens’ outside government control,” a position they have explicitly disavowed. In reality, they are strict constitutionalists who support property rights and dislike the Federal Reserve. In other words, they sound like Ron Paul supporters, most likely some kookier ones, but certainly not terrorists. LePage and members of the Coalition have also threatened to sue Tipping for libel when his purported findings about these meetings were published online.

If Tipping were truly concerned with meaningful fact-finding and analysis regarding LePage’s administration and record, he would have begun the book differently. Indeed, the first chapter is the only illogical interjection in the otherwise well-organized book and feels curiously disjointed from the rest of it. He could have logically started by discussing LePage’s deeply interesting life story, his background in the private sector, his tenure as Mayor of Waterville, or even his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Instead, he chooses to attack LePage, and not by presenting legitimate concerns about his policies or governing style, but rather by questioning his character through claims that he would entertain the conspiracy theories of domestic terrorists.

As a result, it is clear that the purpose of this clumsily inserted chapter is to make the audience as receptive as possible to Tipping’s agenda—one that unfairly attempts to discredit anything that LePage says or does.

Moreover, Tipping’s tendency to argue with straw men and logical fallacies aplenty underscores his intense partisanship. For example, in a chapter entitled “Labor,” he attacks LePage for enacting cuts to state pension funds. One criticism is the fact that Maine’s last Republican governor cut his own salary when cutting state employees’ salaries, while LePage did nothing similar, despite rhetoric about “shared solutions.” Here, Tipping’s argument is disingenuous at best and populist demagoguery at worst. His clear insinuation is that LePage is living off the public’s dime and is unwilling to sacrifice his own comfort while he reneges on guarantees to poor, hardworking teachers and state employees. However, in reality, LePage makes the least out of any governor in the country, at $70,000 per year, significantly less than Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe, who makes the second-least at $86,890 per year. Furthermore, LePage took a 70% pay cut when he became Governor, as compared to his private-sector job, and he makes less than Maine’s Secretary of State, State Auditor, State Attorney-General, and State Treasurer. By any measure, it is hard to fault LePage for failing in engage in a largely symbolic gesture, but Tipping surely finds a way to advance his own agenda.

Tipping has superficial credibility as a journalist, but he is really a political activist who also happens to have a newspaper column. As a communications director of various progressive groups, Tipping defaults to generic left-wing talking points. However, one would hope that a comprehensive book would be able to rely on substantive discussion rather than simplistic distortions. Tipping fails to do so, no doubt because LePage’s policy prescriptions on issues such as pensions are fundamentally sensible and necessary. Even Tipping does not dare deny that there were massive unfunded liabilities in the state pension system that had to be addressed, most feasibly through cuts. Instead, he prefers to obfuscate the issue by pushing the party line that LePage cut pensions to enact tax cuts for the wealthy. But with insolvent pension funds imploding across the country, LePage ultimately did well to prevent his state from going the way of Illinois and California.

In general, Tipping’s arguments lack sophistication, presenting crude assertions in lieu of any real intellectual engagement. His coverage of the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary and general election and a profile of one of LePage’s early supporters combines a blandly competent reporting of the facts with a general, unsubstantiated contention: in essence, LePage is a bad governor simply because he is very conservative. While it makes sense that Tipping would provide only a cursory exposition of his thesis in early chapters, one would expect him to fully expound his claim in later chapters and actually explain why LePage’s conservatism (or Tea Party ideology, as Tipping refers to it as) is detrimental to Maine. Despite ample opportunities to do so, Tipping fails to engage on this topic.

Tipping proves to be better suited to writing attack ads and campaign press releases rather than to producing credible journalism. Rather than provide a logical and cohesive argument, Tipping simply bashes the alleged corporate influences in LePage’s administration, especially the Koch Brothers, deploys Tea Party as a derogatory term, and attacks LePage’s bombastic tendencies rather than the merit of his proposals. In fact, Tipping says nearly as much when discussing LePage’s transition into office, claiming that the “three things that seem to have significant effects on his administration’s decisions” are corporate interests, the Tea Party, and LePage’s personal style. But perhaps Tipping is simply constructing a narrative of LePage’s governance that does not actually exist. In any administration there will be competing interests, and Tipping’s relentless focus on just a few of these factors fails to shield his own ineffectual and fallacious argumentation.

A chapter titled “The Environment” is a prime example of Tipping’s prejudice. He painstakingly details corporate support of LePage’s efforts to repeal various environmental regulations, interspersing his finding with commentary on LePage’s various verbal mishaps on the subject. Of course certain corporations are going to oppose costly regulations; this is not new. At the same time, corporate support of deregulatory measures does not necessarily mean that repealing overzealous protections is a mistaken idea. In contrast to his lengthy exposition on corporate support for deregulation, Tipping spends precious little time explaining the supposed necessity of these regulations and similarly declares support for subsidized wind energy without much supporting evidence. As such, he simply holds these progressive truths as self-evident, without actually substantiating them.

Tipping’s discussion of “Public Assistance” is similarly demonstrative of his unwarranted bias. He all-too-conveniently avoids discussing LePage’s personal background and chalks up his anti-welfare views to convenient boogeyman of the Tea Party. The reality could not be more markedly different; LePage’s dim view of public assistance clearly derives from his life experiences. He grew up poor and with an abusive father who eventually broke his nose, causing him to run away at the age of eleven. Homeless for a while, LePage worked whatever jobs he could find and was eventually accepted to Husson College with the help of Senator Olympia Snowe’s first husband. While LePage ultimately succeeded, many of his siblings have ended up dead, in prison, or on welfare. Tipping only mentions this personal narrative in passing in an early chapter and fails to address this crucial component of LePage’s identity and governance. Of course, LePage is much harder to demonize as an uncaring ideological extremist and corporate shill if the reader understands his deeply personal reasons for his positions.

Furthermore, the crux of Tipping’s premise, that LePage’s tenure has been one of economic malaise and mismanagement, ignores the facts to make a partisan point. In his conclusion, Tipping leans heavily on a copious number of graphs in a final attempt to convince the reader of LePage’s failures. These data come from the innocuous-sounding Maine Center for Economic Policy, actually a far-left interest group that supports a “socially just” economy. Here, Tipping’s hypocrisy is astounding. He uses misleading statistics to provide an air of objectivity and irrefutability while repeatedly dismissing similar conservative organizations such as the American Legislative Exchange Council as illegitimate conduits for greedy corporations. For example, one figure demonstrates Maine’s failure to recover from the Great Recession, allegedly because of LePage’s policies, by charting employment in Maine as compared to New England overall and the United States. Maine had similar job losses compared to the rest of New England, but its recovery has been much slower. However, these data clearly show that Maine’s recovery had fallen behind the rest of New England in mid-2010, before LePage had even been elected (let alone inaugurated); had time to implement his policies; and had time for the impact of these policies to manifest. A passing glance at these figures and a modicum of understanding about correlation as opposed to causation reveals Tipping’s attempt to mislead and deceive, not inform.

We can safely conclude that LePage is not the one holding back Maine’s economy. Maine’s recovery lags because the state still has a poor business climate, despite LePage’s progress in making Maine “open for business,” as a result of Democratic intransigence in the state legislature. Although Tipping asserts that LePage sold out Maine to corporations, the Charles Koch Institute still ranks Maine last in the nation in economic freedom. Forbes ranks Maine #49 in the nation for business climate, in part because of its high corporate taxes that have deterred investment for decades. None of the 1,000 largest American companies are based in Maine. #1-ranked Utah has “a pro-business regulatory climate, low energy costs, and robust employment outlook,” yet Tipping still advocates for uneconomical subsidized wind energy and more burdensome regulations. Jason Sorens and William Ruger’s Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom (2013 Edition) tells a similar story. Maine’s tax burden, though still very high, “is no longer an immense outlier,” thanks to LePage’s tax cuts. However, spending on public welfare is still “well above national norms,” even with LePage’s reforms. So in other words, from Tipping’s myopic, progressive vantage point, LePage’s reasonable policies become radical extremism.

Ultimately, As Maine Went represents less an indictment of LePage than of Tipping. Tipping takes shots at LePage’s occasionally ham-handed public statements without addressing policy in a meaningful way. It is certainly possible for there to be a thoughtful progressive critique of LePage’s legacy, but Tipping either lacks any real comprehension of the topics he discusses or is intentionally engaging in demagoguery. Either possibility is equally disconcerting. LePage has certainly made mistakes, and his record is not at all perfect, but Tipping’s work is laced with a personal animosity against LePage and blinded by a hatred of businesses and the Tea Party. Regrettably, Tipping seems to be unable to rise above name-calling, and As Maine Went is little more than a left-wing hatchet job assailing one of America’s most dynamic governors under the guise of investigative reporting.

Fortunately, LePage was vindicated in the end. Although Tipping repeatedly claims that LePage only has the support of approximately 38% of Mainers and could only win reelection from an independent splitting the vote, LePage romped on Election Day. He won 48.2% of the vote, while Democratic candidate Mike Michaud won 43.4% and independent Eliot Cutler won 8.4%. Moreover, polling shows that approximately one-third of Cutler’s supporters would have voted for LePage over Michaud, meaning that LePage would have won a majority if it were a two-way race. Maine also experienced the highest voter turnout in the country, at 59.3%, so it is impossible to dismiss LePage’s victory as simply a product of low midterm turnout.

It would seem, then, that much to Tipping’s chagrin, after four years of LePage, Maine is ready for more.