Nearly two decades ago, one of the most popular and culturally significant sitcoms of all time, Seinfeld, famously described itself as a “show about nothing.” That tag line stuck, since rather than having one overarching theme, the show derived its humor from simply following its characters’ day-to-day lives. It provided a postmodern take on everyday life that made it a hit.
Having no overarching story may work in a sitcom. It doesn’t work in politics, as we are finding out by watching the gubernatorial campaign of Mike Michaud.
Any time you run against an incumbent, much of your campaign will be about contrasting yourself with him; that’s inevitable. However, you still have to present a positive vision, giving voters a reason to support you. It has become increasingly clear after the debates that Michaud’s biggest flaw is his inability to do so.
He has adopted a number of recycled liberal ideas from candidates past, without offering any explanation of how he’ll pay for them. He’s been claiming that he’ll be bipartisan, while simultaneously running an extremely negative campaign, failing to adopt any ideas from Republicans, and attacking recent bipartisan accomplishments, like the tax cuts passed in the last Legislature.
It’s hard, of course, for Michaud to present much in the way of new ideas, since his party ran the Legislature for 30 years until 2010. His campaign is not about a new direction for Maine — or, indeed, any direction at all. It’s a campaign about nothing.
In contrast, both of his opponents offered a clear vision and direction for the state. Gov. Paul LePage wants to make government smaller and more efficient, cut wasteful spending, and make it easier and cheaper to do business in this state. He’s been able to do much in four years to put Maine on that path — paying off the hospital debt, cutting taxes, pension reform — but there’s more work that needs to be done.
Similarly, Cutler wants to help make Maine a better place to do business. He just has a different path to getting there. He’s been bold in proposing many specific policy ideas. Though many of those ideas are misguided and ill-conceived, at least they’re original. He’s running as an independent because he knows many of the things he wants to get done would be fought tooth-and-nail by special interests in the Democratic Party.
That’s why he, to the frustration of so many Democrats, is staying in the race and keeps drawing a significant base of support. Many of his supporters are reform-minded liberals, who know that Maine needs real changes but disagree with LePage and Republicans on substance or on style.
That’s the mistake Democrats made in paving the way for Michaud as their anointed candidate. Instead of finding someone who could offer a clear direction of change that would contrast with Cutler and LePage, they found someone who is so much a creature of the establishment that his campaign could offer no real new ideas. The reason Paul LePage won in 2010 wasn’t because Eliot Cutler was in the race. He won because Libby Mitchell was in the race, and the debates made it obvious that the Democrats didn’t learn from that mistake.
Mainers who want change — which resonated so well in 2010, both among Democrats and Republicans — have been presented with two clear choices in this race. Unfortunately for the Democrats, it’s become clear that, just like four years ago, their candidate isn’t one of them.