'Awful sound'

Politics + Other Mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  February 6, 2014

There’s still time for the Maine Legislature to take action to prevent another tragedy like the one that hit the state in 2010. Representatives and senators of all ideologies must unite behind an emergency bill to preserve what little integrity remains in our political system.

They should pass a law making it illegal for gubernatorial candidates to debate each other.

Such a measure would probably be challenged in court by free speech advocates, who’d claim it violates the First Amendment. But for that to be true, there’d have to be something resembling speech. And no gubernatorial debate in recent memory has produced so much as a marginally coherent statement. It’s remains an open legal question whether the Constitution protects meaningless babble and annoying whining noises, but I’m willing to take a chance that it doesn’t.

In my journalistic career, I’ve sat through dozens of debates among would-be occupants of the Blaine House without ever hearing an enlightening comment (rude remarks by members of the media excepted). Instead, the candidates relied on platitudes, rehearsed anecdotes, and generalized responses designed to make it appear they were responding to any question they didn’t have a real answer for. For instance:

“I believe deeply that kids that grow up in poor towns ought to have the same opportunities as kids that grow up in wealthy towns,” said Democrat Joe Brennan in a 1994 debate. “I’m deeply bothered by a two-tiered system.”

Hard to disagree with that. Even harder to figure out what Brennan might have been proposing.

“If you look at the 21st century, the heart of good jobs is going to rest with education,” independent governor Angus King said after being tossed a softball query about something or other in a 1998 forum. “We’ve got to develop what I call low-stress, low-cost entry points.”

What’s that mean? Beats me. And its meaning may have eluded King, as well, because in his second term, he never did get around to creating any “entry points.” His comment sounded like filler worked up by his campaign staff to make sure the televised debate didn’t suffer from too much dead air.

Some debate answers come prepackaged for party nominees to reuse every election cycle. In 2002, Republican Peter Cianchette offered up the standard GOP dogma on improving the business climate. “Right now, we have an economy … that is not only stifled … by a very high tax burden right now, and that’s why I have an aggressive strategy to hold the line on taxes and to actually reduce our taxes over the next five years.”

Syntax problems aside — even current GOP governor Paul LePage has said the same thing more succinctly — this is just standard rhetoric, lacking context and details needed to assess whether it means anything. Anybody can say they’ll cut taxes. As LePage has learned (or should have learned by now), it takes more than words to make those kinds of changes.

In 2006, incumbent Democratic governor John Baldacci was queried about negative ads targeting his Republican opponent. “I’m glad you asked that question,” Baldacci replied. “I think part of the toughest thing about running for public office is putting yourself out there and be able to take the rough and tumble of that. My mother always used to tell me that she didn’t want to hear me complaining about it, because I ran for office.”

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