Maine Wire columnist
The Frary Files: Angus King, the Artful Dodger
On October 22 at a forum the candidates for U.S. Senate explained their respective positions on the Affordable Car Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”). Angus King answered that it was not perfect but he supported it.
In 1994 he wrote: “I must confess to considerable skepticism about the idea of turning our entire medical system over to the state….I am not confident that our political system will be able to provide the discipline to control health care costs….What has the government (national or state) done so well lately that makes us want to give them another 14 percent of our Gross National Product…and the power of life and death?’ (pp. 106-107)
He did not disclose what developments had dispelled his skepticism about the state and instilled a new confidence in its discipline. The question of what our governments have done in the last 18 years that makes him want to give them control of what is now 16 percent of the GNP was neither asked nor answered.
You might think that Cynthia Dill, his rival for Democratic votes, might have made something this evidence of shaky confidence in Almighty Government, especially the hint at “death panels.”
Given the liberal base’s fondness for the Canadian model, she might also have made something of King’s remarks on the same pages about that single-payer system. I quote: “For two weeks during the 1993 Christmas holidays…all the hospitals in Ontario were closed because the province was out of money. That’s rationing with a vengeance.” And “…there are many people in Canada who are willing to pay out of their own pockets for heath care in the United States—not exactly a vote of confidence in their system.” And “…Canada has been experiencing medical cost escalation close to ours in recent years.”
Considering how neatly these 1994 remarks summarize the conservative case against adopting the Canadian single-payer system this should have provided an opportunity for Cynthia to condemn Angus as a tool of “radical right-wing extremists.” In fact, Angus King’s 1994 “Making a Difference” is full of remarks that make sense to conservative Republicans like myself. It’s clear that Sen. Dill has neglected her campaign home-work. Her rhetorical style runs to a free association of standard liberal sound-bites, memes and tropes. For example, her response to a question about the Second Amendment rights included a reference to America’s high incarceration rates, although they have almost nothing to do gun offenses.
It’s only fair to recognize that Cynthia Dill is not alone in neglecting “Making a Difference.” The neglect seems to be nearly universal. This is a pity. In his introduction the man wrote, “Any candidate who is serious about governing owes a straightforward statement of beliefs, positions, principle, and opinions…” This is inarguable in an ideal world. The principles set forth in such campaign books provide a useful basis for testing principles against mere palaver assuming the author actually gets elected. If a man sets out to “make a difference” it is reasonable to ask for details of what differences he actually made while in office.
We are not hearing this and we won’t. Voters anxiously waiting to hear Angus King to begin a sentence with “As I wrote in 1994…” will wait in vain. In the real world campaign books are mere ephemera. They are usually found on the remaindered table even before election day. A phrase from German naval communiques, spurlos verschwunden (“vanished without a trace”), describes their fate exactly.
I propose, however, to explore the opinions and beliefs Angus King expressed in 1994. His position about taxes stands out among them. On page 40 we read “…by almost any measure Maine is a high-tax state…” And “My position on taxes is simple: we don’t need to increase the already too-heavy burden on Maine people.”
He goes on to point out on page 41: “The point is underlined in a recent study by the Congressional Joint Economic Committee. That report concluded that the states—of which Maine is one—that enacted the largest tax increases in the midst of the budget problems in 1990 and 1991 now find themselves in the poorest economic condition.” He explains this on page 42: “…state revenue growth is more likely to come from growth in the economy than from increases in taxes.”
I’m sure Paul LePage agrees with all these insights; I know I do. Compare his precepts with his performance as governor and a certain inconsistency emerges. In 1994 he argued ironically that the state didn’t need to spend all the money it collected. In that year, correctly observing that booms are inevitably followed by downturns, he proposed to either increase the state’s rainy day fund or accelerate the retirement of the state debt (p. 49). He spoke clearly about Augusta’s history of neglecting history: “History has taught us that government has a limitless appetite for taxes, that there will always be good causes requiring more government spending, and that taxes almost always go up, never down.” (p. 44)
Moving from precept to performance state spending grew by $2.6 billion under his administration. The rainy day fund peaked at around $140,000,000 and shrank back to the level it was when he took office. Leaving office, he admitted his gimmicky budgeting would leave his successor with a budget hole of at least $750 million. When it turned out to be $1 billion, he recommended tax increases to cover the shortfall.
So it turned out that Maine’s government really did need to spend all the money it gouged from its taxpayers during the boom times—that and more. He did this in a truly non-partisan manner, by funding special interest projects from the left, from the middle and from the right. He cut the sales taxes from 6% to 5%, expanded medicare and other welfare programs and put laptops in our school rooms.
In short, he benefited from the boom times and left office trailing clouds of glory. By that time no one remembered the section in his book entitled “Abolish Welfare as We Know it” (pp. 108-112). Who knew that Angus thought “abolish” and “expand” were synonyms?
In light of this record I find myself mildly amused by this: “I think it is the responsibility of anybody running for Governor in 1994 to tell the people of Maine what he or she would do to close what will almost certainly be a significant gap.” His own valedictory: “Good bye, raise taxes” is a poor match for this precept, and all his other observations about taxation.
He made no mention of a laptop program for seventh and eighth graders, his signature gimmick, in 1994 but he did suggest four questions which should be asked about every program (p. 50). The first was “What is your mission? (If it can’t be clearly defined, maybe we shouldn’t do it); and the fourth was “Can we measure the results of the program?” When he introduced this program, he billed it as a measure which would “transform education” in Maine.
Has anyone noticed a transformation? Has anyone read a report measuring its results?
In 1994 Angus was proud to quote Maine’s best and most skeptical political observer, Al Diamon: “Early next year independent gubernatorial candidate Angus King plans to take a big risk. He promises to release a detailed outline of what the state budget would look like under a King administration. That’s a gutsy move no other candidate has come close to making.” (p. 56).
Al has recently looked upon the results of the King administration, and I confidently predict that Angus will not be quoting his verdict: “King waltzed through his eight years in office on the strength of his likable demeanor and superb communications skills. He gave a lot of speeches full of airy goals that today seem slightly absurd…The weird thing is the public bought his fairytale vision. King was so smooth behind the podium or in front of the camera that no matter how contradictory or silly his comments were, they came across as reasonable, even desirable.”
This column grows over-long but there is much more in “Making a Difference” to amuse the cynic. King’s basic method is to offer precepts agreeable to Republicans, paired with “ifs”, “howevers” and “buts” that allow him an escape hatch from concrete commitments. Thus it was at the UMF forum when he simultaneously vaunted his support for the Second Amendment rights and the Brady Bill, which both the NRA and the gun-grabbers understand to be the thin edge of the wedge for expanded restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms.
Thus he assured the Maine Sunday Telegram at the end of his tern that, “Almost certainly, I will not run for anything again. I’ve learned in this life you never say never, but I have absolutely no intention of running.”
You see how it works? Your average, inattentive voter may see this record as evidence that Angus King is as slippery as an eel in a vat of olive oil. Those who are better informed about politics understand that it simply demonstrates the man’s superb communication skills.
Professor John Frary of Farmington, Maine is a former US Congress candidate and retired history professor, a Board Member of Maine Taxpayers United and an associate editor of the International Military Encyclopedia, and can be reached at:firstname.lastname@example.org.