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Now that the party conventions are done and dusted, the real world beckons. A good place to start is the far north-eastern corner of the US, the often overlooked state of Maine.
It used to be said that “as goes Maine, so goes the nation”, and there was some truth in that. It has long been a poor state economically, its old manufacturing industries such as shoes and textiles all but gone and shipbuilding a shadow of its former self – but it is beautiful, has marvellous lobsters, and its politicians exuded the sort of Yankee sensibility that has served the country well over the years, regardless of party affiliation.
Consider its distinguished long line of senators, starting with the Republican Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman to win election in her own right to the Senate, who nobly stood up to Joe McCarthy. In 1972, the Democrat Ed Muskie sufficiently scared Richard Nixon that he unleashed his dirty tricksters on him. George Mitchell, also a Democrat, was a tough-minded national party leader, later a peacemaker in Northern Ireland and the Middle East. The two incumbent Republicans, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, are avatars of moderation.
We have been going to Maine for 20 summers, returning refreshed in body and mind, but the state does not look so good this year. Global warming, in the form of warmer seas, has produced a glut of soft-shell lobsters, driving prices down to levels not seen in those 20 years – good for us consumers but dire for the lobstermen. It has even led to a dearth of finnan haddie, without which no breakfast or fish pie is complete, reducing us to trying to smoke our own haddock.
Ms Snowe is retiring, disgusted with the partisan rancour in Washington and with the social extremism of her own party. Ms Collins is going to stick it out but has joined her in writing opinion pieces lamenting the current state of affairs. The only consolation is that Ms Snowe could be replaced in November by Angus King, the popular former governor, running as an independent, though he would probably caucus with the Democrats in Washington, thus costing the Republicans a vital seat.
But his success is no given in a three-way race against both Republican and Democratic candidates. That is what transpired two years ago, when Paul LePage, a Tea Party Republican, was elected governor with just 38 per cent of the vote, barely ahead of an independent challenger. The state is now reaping bitter consequences.
There is a lot Mr LePage does not believe in, starting with humans causing climate change and ending with the theory of evolution. Congenitally rude and abusive to all who do not share his views, he has also likened the Internal Revenue Service to the Gestapo, public service employees to “criminals” and rarely misses an opportunity to attack school teachers or cut social and health services to the poor and aged.
His particularly visceral hatred is for organised labour, removing from a state office building a mural depicting Rosie the Riveter, the symbol of women who worked the factories in the second world war, who happened to be a Mainer in real life but whose cardinal sin, in his eyes, was to belong to a union. He even removed the name of Frances Perkins, the Mainer who became US labour secretary, from a conference room in a state building.
Other new Republican governors, in Indiana, Ohio and notably Wisconsin, some Tea Partiers, some not, have taken aim at public service unions but not quite with Mr LePage’s pettiness. Maine is not among the 29 states with anti-union right-to-work laws, an omission he would doubtless like to correct.
But mostly he does not believe in government, even calling his own state middle-management employees “as corrupt as you can be”. Last month he proposed calling the state legislature into special session before November’s election to lay out new reform proposals, before abruptly changing his mind, but not before speculation was rife as to what he might have in mind (mass moose slaughter?)
Maine will doubtless survive Mr LePage, who did not grace the Republican convention in Tampa with his presence in a dispute about sitting state delegates pledged to the libertarian candidate, Ron Paul. But his reign in Maine is causing pain, not to mention embarrassment, and could serve as a warning to the national Republican party that extremism in defence of virtue may indeed be a vice, or noose, or both.
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