Monday, March 10, 2014
For all its many faults, politics can be enormously amusing, especially when it isn’t either infuriating or embarrassing. That isn’t to say that the country is much amused with politicians at the moment, with polls showing Congress slightly less popular than terrorists, pickpockets and Russian hockey players.
Part of our frustration, I suppose, comes from the abundance of millionaires in Washington who loudly represent the unwashed masses while ringing for the downstairs help. But it isn’t just money and negative advertising that’s been turning Americans against politicians, it’s also their ability to cheerfully embrace inconsistency.
Politics has become a circus full of verbal gymnasts and double-jointed contortionists, and we’re getting to the point where we almost expect politicians to be unbelievable. All of which is unfortunate because a lot of really good people in politics give up their time and delay their careers to serve in government, and they’re getting painted over with a big anti-politics brush.
In our town, where my wife is town councilor, I’m constantly amazed at the value the town gets out of all its devoted volunteers and elected officials, at virtually no cost. The higher you go up the political ladder, however, the more the honed skill of artful dodging seems to prevail. There, you can see astonishing feats of double-speak acrobatics, including:
• America has the greatest military in the world, but the federal government can’t run anything.
• We need to keep government out of people’s lives, unless they’re pregnant, gay or pot smokers.
• Protecting unborn babies is a moral imperative, but providing federally funded meals for hungry kids in school is a bad idea.
• It makes perfect sense to be pro-life and support the death penalty.
• To help the little guy, we have to protect tax breaks for billionaires and oppose increases in the minimum wage.
• It’s OK to wave the flag in support of the military and to vote against fully funding veterans benefits.
• We should rely on science rather than emotion when regulating industry but dismiss science when it comes to climate change or evolution.
One of the newest contradictions in politics — though not a very amusing one — has to do with how we treat health care versus other issues. Think about how we handle federal funding for potholes, for instance, versus health care. Every few years, a cross-section of politicians urges Mainers to pass a transportation bond because the federal government will match whatever dollars we put up one-to-one.
All of that is plainly and prominently stated on our ballots, and our response is swift. “Wow,” we all seem to say in unison, and we quickly mark that box with a big X. That is, of course, a thoroughly sensible and practical Maine thing to do. Federal money includes our tax dollars, after all, and why shouldn’t we get as much of it back as we possibly can?
Now look at how state government has responded to a federal match for health care. While taking federal dollars for potholes is “matching funds,” taking federal dollars for health care is a “government takeover of health care,” or at least an assault on our right to have uninsured people.
Never mind that the federal government is offering to pay the full cost of insuring as many as 70,000 low-income Mainers, or that the federal match after that will be nine dollars for every one dollar we put in. Nine dollars to one? If we had something like that in transportation, we’d all be dancing in the freshly paved streets.
“We can’t take that money for health care,” says Gov. Paul LePage, because that’s “welfare.”
So, let me see if I’ve got this right: It is frugal common sense to go after a one-to-one match for potholes, but a nine-to-one match for someone with a fever is bad? When did roads become more important than people? When did politics became more important than common sense?
One way to override this kind of political doublespeak is to put the question to the voters. Place the nine-to-one match for health care on the ballot, right beside the one-to-one match for transportation. Let Maine people decide. The answer would be swift and sensible, with both bills being passed.
And the people of Maine would send a loud and clear message to Augusta: “Stop playing politics with peoples’ lives. We are not amused.”Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is a partner in the Caron and Egan Consulting Group, which advises businesses and organizations on strategies for growth and the president of Envision Maine, a nonprofit organization working to promote Maine’s next economy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.