Impromptus

Maine Journal, Part III

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: In the current issue of National Review, we have a piece by Jay Nordlinger called “The State of Maine: Not all lobster bibs and brisk swims.” This “Maine Journal” in his Impromptus is a supplement to the piece. For Parts I and II of the journal, go here and here.

In recent years, Maine has been very hard hit by drugs. A headline in 2011 read, “Maine tops nation in prescription drug abuse.” In the wake of prescription drugs have come heroin and meth. Dealers from Brooklyn and other such places find a ready market here. People are overdosing in increasing numbers — dying.

Politicians and others speak of an “epidemic,” and that is not an exaggeration. All the New England governors are devoting more and more time to this problem, this crisis. In fact, there was a gubernatorial summit on drugs in Waltham, Mass., earlier this summer.

Traveling around Maine, and hearing about it, I think, “This is a textbook example of what Charles Murray is talking about.” Two years ago, the famed political scientist wrote Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010. It’s about economic and moral decline. Of course, there are textbook examples all over the country . . .

In February, I was in my home state, Michigan, visiting Hillsdale College — an elite college in a rural area. Someone told me that local stores have trouble getting and keeping help: Too many citizens are hooked on meth.

Two months later, I was in Nebraska, doing a story from a lovely farming community. My host pointed out all the meth houses.

May I ask a question? When exactly did America become a continental ghetto?

In his State of the State address last February, Maine’s governor spoke of the drug epidemic. “It is tearing at the social fabric of our communities,” he said. “While some are spending all their time trying to expand welfare, we are losing the war on drugs.” He went on to say that “927 drug-addicted babies were born last year in Maine. That’s more than 7 percent of all births.”

The governor is Paul LePage, a conservative Republican. He is the most controversial, colorful, and quotable governor in America. His political incorrectness is spectacular. The liberal press doesn’t know whether to be outraged or amused. Politico ran a story titled “How Did Mild-Mannered Maine Get America’s Craziest Governor?”

A long way from crazy, LePage knows many things. Poverty, for one. He was born in Lewiston in 1948. The family was French-speaking, and Paul was the first of 18 children. His father was a mill worker and a drunk. He beat the hell out of Paul, who escaped home at age eleven. He lived on the streets for two years. With the help of some caring and responsible adults, he rose.

LePage has an advantage that few politicians do: You can’t out-poor him. You can’t lecture or guilt him on the subject of poverty. His tongue is amazingly free. He reminds me a little of black conservatives, talking to black audiences, and to white liberal audiences, for that matter. They have an invaluable freedom.

In his State of the State address, LePage said, “There is no excuse for able-bodied adults to spend a lifetime on welfare at the expense of hard-working, struggling Mainers. That is not what I call compassion.”

He is trying to crack down on welfare abusers. He said, “I will not tolerate the abuse of welfare benefits. Maine’s limited resources must be reserved for the truly needy. . . . Every dollar that goes to buy cigarettes, alcohol, or lottery tickets is a dollar taken away from a needy child . . .”

And, “If you want to ask the taxpayers for money, you should make a good-faith effort to get a job first.”

See what I mean?

I think of the Rockefellers, some of whom went to poor states to have their careers: Winthrop became governor of Arkansas; Jay became a U.S. senator from West Virginia. If a Rockefeller tries to reform welfare, the headline may well read, “Rockefeller Snatches Bread from Urchin’s Mouth.” Try that with LePage: He is the urchin.

Let me do some more quoting:

I know generational poverty. But I escaped generational poverty, and lived the American Dream. Some caring Maine families took me in from the streets of Lewiston and gave me the guidance I needed to succeed.

I have said it many times: Education saved my life. Throwing money at poverty will not end poverty. Education and mentoring will end poverty.

He is incredibly blunt about economics and the size of government, as he is about everything else. Have some more, from that State of the State address: “Higher taxes and bloated government have not improved our lives. Higher energy costs have not attracted major investments to Maine. More welfare has not led to prosperity. It has not broken the cycle of generational poverty.”

A bit more: “Recruiting job creators to come to Maine is not easy. The global competition is fierce. Investment capital goes where it is welcomed and stays where it is appreciated.”

The street urchin sounds a lot like Mitt Romney, the rich kid.

LePage quoted Churchill, to wit, “Some people regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look on it as a cow they can milk. Not enough people see it as a healthy horse, pulling a sturdy wagon.”

Have some more bluntness, more essential LePage:

Liberal politicians are taking us down a dangerous path — a path that is unsustainable. They want a massive expansion of Maine’s welfare state. Expanded welfare does not break the cycle of generational poverty. It breaks the budget.

In 1935, during the height of the Great Depression, FDR — the father of the New Deal — warned against welfare dependency. He said, “To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit. . . . The federal government must and shall quit this business of relief.”

You know who used to quote this frequently? Reagan. It drove his Democratic critics crazy. He also quoted JFK, which also drove them crazy.

In his State of the State, LePage quoted JFK, too. On the subject of welfare, he whipped out, “Ask not what your country can do for you . . .” That took nerve, I think.

He also called for “Open for Business Zones,” which remind me of Jack Kemp’s “enterprise zones.” (By the way, why isn’t all of America, or most of America, an enterprise zone?) Said LePage, “Employees in these zones will not be forced to join labor unions. They will not be forced to pay dues or fees to labor unions. This will allow Maine to compete with right-to-work states.”

One last chunk of that speech, or blast of bluntness:

We are working hard to combat Maine’s reputation as a high-tax state. We passed the largest tax cut in Maine’s history. Two-thirds of Maine taxpayers will get income-tax relief. Liberals call it a “tax break for the rich.” But 70,000 low-income Mainers will no longer pay income tax.

We cut taxes for the working poor. This is compassion.

Despite some nice lines above, in that formal speech, LePage must be the least polished politician in America. He is what journalists call a “gaffe machine.” Thing is, he talks like a normal person — a normal Joe, who does not weigh every word before it comes out of his mouth. Sometimes, he is crude. So are people.

A couple of years ago, he said that, under Obamacare, the IRS would be “the new Gestapo.” A more polished or practiced politician would think this: Gee, I can’t call it a Gestapo, because you cannot compare anything to Nazism, and I don’t want to deal with the Anti-Defamation League and so on. But LePage? He wanted to describe something as a really bad police force — so he said “Gestapo,” just like a normal person would. And landed in hot water.

He is also called a racist, as pretty much every conservative politician, and conservative person, is. He has this advantage: He and his wife took in a black teen from Jamaica, whom they regard as their adopted son. So the governor can tell his accusers to kiss his big white French butt.

LePage won with a narrow plurality in 2010 — he got 38 percent. An independent candidate, Eliot Cutler, got 36 percent. The Democratic nominee, Libby Mitchell, was far behind with 19.

There is another gubernatorial race this year — another three-way, between LePage, Cutler, and the Democratic nominee, this time Mike Michaud, a congressman.

What an interesting race. Consider the three personalities. LePage, you know: the Franco-American kid from the streets of Lewiston. Cutler could hardly be more different: a graduate of Harvard College and Georgetown Law; the founding partner of an important firm; a former aide to Ed Muskie; etc. Michaud is a working-class Franco-American who never went to college and belongs to the steelworkers union. And is openly gay.

Yes, an interesting race, in an interesting state. I’ll continue this journal tomorrow, and wrap it up. Thanks for joining me.

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