New budgets, policies should reflect direction expressed by voters

With the second inauguration of Barack Obama, and the seating of new legislatures, elected officials should pay attention to the issues that defined the election and make policy decisions that reflect the people’s choices.

Elections have consequences. After a campaign in which Republicans called for tax cuts mostly delivered to high-income people, fewer regulations on business and slashing budgets, citizens continue to support a system that has been around since the 1930s, combining a free, active market economy with a government that provides opportunity and security and constrains laissez-faire capitalism. About 60 percent want tax increases on the top 2 percent, and most don’t want to harm programs and tax deductions for middle-class, working-class and poor Americans.

Opinion research from 40 years ago to today shows that Americans are wary of “big government” but strongly support core programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. And while most are concerned about too much regulation, they want laws and rules that protect workers and unions’ rights, constrain banks and provide clean air and water.

While the conservative media did its part in painting Democrats as scary socialists, out of touch with American traditions and its people, many right-wing leaders and organizations were not far behind. Just take a look at the conservative media or purported think tanks like the national Heritage Foundation or the Maine Heritage Policy Center, and you’ll see apocalyptic language, combined with shoddy presentations masquerading as actual research. To rebound, they should take reality more seriously and treat political opponents with greater respect.

In Maine, Gov. Paul LePage finds himself in a new, more lonely place. His name was not on the ballot, and he remained quiet during the campaign season, at least after being captured saying he’d call the Legislature into special session and anger Democrats, not long after he compared Obamacare and the Internal Revenue Service to the Gestapo.

But LePage was the critical factor in Maine legislative races.

Both LePage’s organization, People Before Politics, and opposition groups framed incumbents’ records in terms of their support for the governor’s agenda. Locally, Sen. Nichi Farnham, R-Bangor, signed a 2011 letter criticizing LePage’s tone and opposed his veto of the research and development bond. But Farnham voted for most of LePage’s legislative program and led the committee to end Election Day registration. She lost the Senate race to Democrat Geoffrey Gratwick.

Because of Democrats’ strong wins, it’s clear that some things will not happen in Maine. No new laws will limit voting. The privatization and takings agendas are dead, as are anti-union proposals. However, additional tax cuts passed under the last Legislature will roll out soon and either will have to be curtailed by bipartisan officials or will remake state spending.

Mainers repudiated the dishonest, negative campaign run against successful U.S. Senate candidate Angus King and added to New England’s unusual tendency to select independents. King should understand that his strong win was not just about him and his message about a broken political system but was also fueled by a rejection of the Republican agenda candidate Charlie Summers endorsed.

Nationally, no policy issue is garnering as much attention as preventing the “fiscal cliff,” with its increases in taxes and big cuts in spending.

We were brought to this point by brinkmanship over raising the debt ceiling. Congressional Republicans refused to take this normal step, and leaders set up a series of steps – a “super-committee” to create a budget and then the “fiscal cliff” should the committee fail. Republicans rejected Obama’s outline, which included substantial cuts in core social programs and proportionately few dollars in tax increases.

The 2012 elections should provide a fresh start to negotiations. Obama’s earlier proposal, delivered under duress, should be off the table. The vast bulk of the deficit is due to the Bush tax cuts, the recession, two wars and the Bush prescription drug plan.

With Americans having chosen a more progressive Congress and picked the president who opposed the Paul Ryan budget plan, the new budget should reflect voters’ direction.

In Maine and nationally, Democrats should see their wins as an endorsement of their approach and a repudiation of Republican over-reach. However, Democrats will need to stay engaged with the public as they carry out their mandate, demonstrating principled partisanship and bipartisan compromise.

Even as elections have consequences, another is just two years away.

Amy Fried is a member of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.