The best thing that could happen to independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler is a state shutdown.
I'm not saying Cutler, who lost a close race for governor in 2010, is sitting in a secret chamber in his enormous Cape Elizabeth mansion burning incense, sacrificing chickens, and sticking pins in voodoo dolls that look like Speaker of the House Mark Eves and Senate President Justin Alfond. I'm not saying he's hoping his occult ceremony will render the two Democratic leaders incapable of mustering the two-thirds votes needed to override Republican Governor Paul LePage's veto of the two-year state budget.
But I'm not saying he's not.
(In the event that by the time this column reaches you, the budget has already passed, and hugs and kisses abound in state government, I urge you to carefully peruse the rest of my piece not for any insights it might contain, but because you'll get to gloat about how wrong I was.)
No one in Maine would benefit more from gridlock in Augusta than Cutler. If you don't believe me, consider this historical precedent.
In 1991, the Legislature, controlled by Democrats, and the governor, moderate Republican John McKernan, deadlocked over workers' comp reform. Without some concessions on that issue, McKernan said, he'd veto the budget. When he started wavering on that threat, a group of conservative GOP state senators let him know in no uncertain terms that he'd better develop some male sex glands in a hurry or they'd never vote for anything he proposed. Shortly thereafter, McKernan — speaking in a high, squeaky voice — announced he wasn't willing to compromise, whereupon the state shut down for a couple of weeks. Eventually, the stalemate ended when Democrats gave some ground, but the animosity among all combatants lingered for years.
The Republican senators who precipitated that crisis came to be known as "the Gang Laying the Groundwork for the Election of Independent Angus King as Governor in 1994." Well, not really. They were actually known as "the Gang of 13," but they might as well have used the longer name, because the shutdown squabble was directly responsible for King emerging from nowhere (defined in those days as being a talk-show host on public television) to win the governorship. Voters' anger over the petty politics that forced the shutdown caused them to reject both major parties in favor of a likable, soft-spoken outsider with no discernable agenda.
Cutler thinks the same thing could happen this time around, even though he's neither likable nor soft-spoken. He does, however, resemble King in one important way: He's rich. That means he'll have all the money he needs to take advantage if LePage and/or the Democrats screw up, and state government shuts down.
The possibility that taking a hard line in negotiating a final budget deal could benefit a guy that both political parties detest ought to be sufficient incentive to find common ground. But those who can't remember 1991 may be doomed to repeat it.
Democrats are convinced that with 2nd District US Representative Michael Michaud as their candidate there's no chance their effort to recapture the Blaine House will falter as it did in 2010, when standard-bearer Libby Mitchell couldn't seem to think of anything she'd do differently to drag the state out of an economic pit. But Michaud is the poster boy for a do-nothing Congress, rife with extremists and mediocrities. A state shutdown would lead to unfortunate comparisons of Augusta to Washington, none of which make Michaud look like anything but more of the same. Cutler wouldn't even have to point out his deficiencies — although I doubt he could restrain himself.