Monday, July 28, 2014

In Defense of Cutler (Sort of...)

Eliot Cutler. Photo from the Bangor Daily News.

Maine independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler should not drop out of the race. Frankly, I find all calls for him to do so--primarily coming from the Maine Democratic Party and liberal voters--highly anti-democratic.

A recent MPBN report on the candidates'  campaign finances ("Viability of Cutler Campaign Questioned in Wake of Finance Reports," 7/23/2014), finds Cutler trailing Republican incumbent Paul LePage, and Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud, with only $527,000 on hand. Michaud, meanwhile, is leading with more than $1 million, with LePage following close behind, with a little more than $900,000, according to the report.

The independently-wealthy Cutler is largely self-financing his campaign--a fact MPBN reporter, A.J. Higgins makes the focus of the story. In the warped logic of our money-driven political system, Higgins and other local media pundits are using Cutler's comparative lack of campaign cash to further justify calls for him to drop out of the three-way race.

Higgins goes on to raise fears that Cutler will "take away votes," from Michaud (as if the latter candidate is somehow entitled to them) and, thus, "spoil" the governor's race. This accusatory word, "spoiler," holds a unique place in the U.S. political lexicon in that it applies exclusively to third-party candidates. It is the same asinine, discriminatory accusation Democrats continue to hold over Ralph Nader for allegedly "costing" Al Gore the 2000 presidential election.

The truth, of course, is that Gore won that election. It was the conservative-led Supreme Court, in refusing to allow the Florida vote recount to continue, that essentially anointed George W. Bush president.

But, as is often the case in the contemporary world of corporate politics, if voters are fed a false talking-point enough times, most of them come to accept it as true. Besides, why blame the real culprits for a stolen presidential election when you can just blame the long-admired consumer advocate who just happens to be the only candidate talking about corporate crime and single-payer health care?

Thus, this notion that third-party challengers to the corporate two-party duopoly are "spoilers" for the "real" candidate (i.e. the Democrat) persists in the minds' of voters and has carried over to the state-level. As a result, the rage--and that is the only accurate word to describe it--that Maine Democrats display toward Cutler is not much different from that which they hold for Nader.

Cutler, to his credit, says he is giving "zero thought--maybe less than zero, if that's possible--to getting out of this race." He notes, likewise, he has been forced to largely fund his own campaign given how severely Maine's election laws are stacked against third-party and independent candidates. Those same laws are the reason why the Maine Green Party is not running a gubernatorial candidate this year.

Let me be absolutely clear: I am not a Cutler supporter.

In fact, I find Cutler, overall, to be only slightly less conservative than LePage. He supports charter schools and merit-based-pay for teachers. He is anti-union. He talks of "reforming" welfare. His previous career as a corporate lobbyist and his general ties to business are worrisome. And, in his previous bid for governor in 2010, both Cutler and LePage cited New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as a politician they admire.

In fact, Cutler is not all that different from Sen. Angus King: Socially liberal (i.e. they don't hate gays and minorities) and fiscally conservative. But, like King, Cutler does not challenge the fundamental workings of the economy, foreign policy or capitalism. Though both claim to be "Independent," each would fit right in with either the Democrats or the Republicans. (In fact, King may be headed to the GOP himself come November, depending on which way the political winds blow.)

As such, neither King nor Cutler are truly good examples of third-party candidates, which traditionally have operated outside both the two-party structure, and its corporatist ideology.  

That said, Cutler is by all indications not as extreme as LePage. He is clearly an intelligent, articulate adult, unlike the bullish, tantrum-inclined man-child currently representing the state. I do not think we would need to worry about a Gov. Cutler telling the NAACP to "kiss my butt," or making vulgar jokes about Vaseline to his opponents.

But I prefer to stick to the issues. Character traits and personality differences are best left to the cable-news networks to quibble over. While Cutler--and Michaud, for that matter--may not be as openly rude and hostile to the poor, welfare recipients or the unemployed as LePage has been, the two of them would pursue the same corporatist policies.

To that end, it is largely irrelevant who is elected governor in November. Strange as it is to be quoting George Will, the conservative syndicated columnist was correct when he claimed, in 2008, that elections are not about "whether elites shall rule, but which elite."

So, why am I standing up for Eliot Cutler if I do not even really support him, you ask? Because, unlike most liberals, I believe in every candidate's constitutional right to run for office--whether or not I agree with them ideologically. That is kinda the whole point of free speech, in fact.

Beyond that, I have this crazy idea that more candidates--and, thus, a wider range of discussion, debate, and choice--is actually a good thing for democracy. And why stop with just three candidates? I would like to see four, five, six...hell, ten, 15 or even 25 candidates from different parties on the ballot. Indeed, the U.S. remains stubbornly antiquated as the only industrialized democracy in the world that restricts its political choices to two parties. The fact that those two parties have become virtually indistinguishable in recent decades does not help matters.

If we utilized a ranked-choice or instant runoff voting system as many other countries do, not only would it create more room for a wider diversity of candidates, it would also negate the absurd "spoiler" argument as it would level the political playing-field. Such a system is not as "impossible" to achieve as one may think. Portland already elects its mayor via a ranked-choice ballot. Why not merely expand the procedure to Maine's statewide and Legislative elections?

Maine Democrats are, naturally, not too enthused about this idea. When I contacted Maine Speaker of the House Mark Eves earlier this year about the issue of ranked-choice voting, his assistant was adamant it is not something his party intends to pursue. In fact, the minute I said the words, "ranked-choice" she began yelling, "No! No! No!"

Adopting a ranked-choice voting system, Eves's spokesperson told me, would "ultimately be up to the people."

"But," she added, "it would never work if you didn't have a viable candidate."

Ummm... OK...

Whether the people the Speaker has answering the phones truly understand how ranked-choice voting works or have simply been instructed to stick to tired talking points of "viable" candidates, is not entirely clear.

I had a much less hostile--albeit briefer--conversation with Michaud's Communications Coordinator, Lizzy Reinholt. While she assured me Michaud, as governor, would remain invested in "opening Maine's electoral system to Democrats, Republicans, and Independents," restructuring the state's election system is, nonetheless, something he would approach with caution. Reinholt said Michaud would be particularly concerned about "the price-tag" such a restructuring would entail. She repeatedly stated such a "conversation" about IRV would have to be "serious," as if suggesting there is something inherently "non-serious" about the subject.

Clearly, the biggest hurdle to any sort of electoral reform in Maine--or nationally--is the Democratic Party.

This is ironic, given that it was the Dems' own candidate, milquetoast Libby Mitchell, who "spoiled" the race--to use their own word--in 2010 and got LePage elected in the first place. She received 19 percent of the vote. All the accusations that Cutler is "washed-up," and "incompetent" ignore the fact that he came within 200 votes of becoming governor.

Here is the takeaway: If Michaud is threatened by Cutler's campaign, the solution is not to disparage, demean, and otherwise denounce him into dropping out of the race. Rather, it means Michaud has to work all that much harder to convince voters that he--and not Cutler--is truly the best person to represent Maine.

But the Democrats are not interested in hard work. They think they are entitled to government office simply by virtue of being an Establishment party. Case in point is Nation reporter and standard-bearer liberal, Eric Alterman. In the Nader documentary, An Unreasonable Man, he derides third-party voters as "stupid," and "people who know nothing about politics."

But until we truly open our electoral system to a range of candidates and parties, I tip my hat to anybody who attempts to challenge that Establishment.

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