Maine Democrats’ milquetoast vision is a missed opportunity

Maine Democrats’ milquetoast vision is a missed opportunity

This is the piece I didn’t want to have to write.

When I first read the vision for “A Better State of Maine” put forth by the Maine Democratic Party, I assumed it was an outline or overview, meant to set the stage for a series of forthcoming policies. Now that three weeks have gone by, and the Democrats are holding press conferences to display and discuss their vision, it seems like someone should tell the Emperor that he’s left home without his clothes again, and that the vision could use a little more, well, vision.

Presidential election years offer political parties a chance to clearly articulate a new set of principles and platforms, and this year represents enormous opportunity for both parties to redefine their core. There is a robust and meaningful national conversation that everyone, right, left, and center, is having about the economy, particularly as it impacts women and people of color.

By any measure, the platforms of the national Democratic Party are progressive, representing at least an acknowledgment, if not a full commitment, to advancing truly groundbreaking policies. Hillary Clinton, as the standard bearer of the party, is embracing a new vision for the economy that squarely addresses the issues facing low- and middle-wage workers. Policy advances that speak particularly to the needs of women—paid family leave, access to quality and affordable childcare and elder care, eliminating the tip penalty in the minimum wage and repealing the Hyde amendment—are ubiquitous refrains in Clinton’s public rallies and policy addresses. After a bruising primary, only the most myopic observer could deny that the leadership of the Democratic Party has crystallized around a populist vision of public policy, both as an electoral strategy and as a roadmap for remaking the American economy.

But somewhere between Philadelphia and Augusta, someone lost the map.

For the Maine Democrats to unveil a “vision” (their word, not mine) that fails to mention, let alone explicitly support, any of the actual policy solutions driving the national discourse is…odd. And it should lead to some head-scratching about what, exactly, Democratic leaders are trying to accomplish.

I can only assume that no small measure of this proposal reflects a desire to be inoffensive, to seem approachable to voters of every stripe, in an election year with so many races in play and set to be decided by some small handful of votes. But the desire to attract everyone by saying nothing is a dramatic misreading of the current political climate. The notion that voters will gravitate toward platitudes and general promises feels like a page from a political playbook left over from the 1990s, looking badly awkward and out-of-place against the bold and decisive demands enumerated and articulated by the Democratic Party throughout the presidential primary. In fact, as a Democratic voter, the desire to be milquetoast is what offends me; refusing to advance a claim on the issues central to our democracy and our families out of a misguided effort to remain in the middle of the road is just the sort of thinking that disillusions the would-be activists and leaders of the new Democratic vanguard and feels like, curse of all curses, politics as usual.

The political calculus of playing it safe might make sense, in a vacuum. But in a state where the spokesperson for the opposition is bombastic on his best days, a national embarrassment and an embodiment of pervasive racism and fear-mongering on his worst (and we see his worst so often!), the Democratic Party has a responsibility to follow the indignation and outrage expressed over Governor LePage’s words and actions with a set of policy proposals that demonstrate an understanding of what a better way forward for all Mainers might look like.

Beyond simple kvetching about a lack of leadership from the party, it seems almost a moral failing to put a document like this into the political landscape in 2016. At a moment when the Movement For Black Lives demands a seismic and immediate end to the attacks on and incarceration of communities of color, it defies understanding that the Maine Democrats could unveil a “visionary” document without even a mention of #BlackLivesMatter. A mere three months after the Democratic National Convention featured a lineup of speakers that included students, undocumented and unafraid, demanding a just and fair immigration policy, and disability rights advocates articulating their vision for “nothing about us without us,” how dare the party that claims to deserve their vote exclude those demands from their plan. That Colin Kaepernick and Beyoncé have more clearly-defined positions on the key political and moral issues facing our nation than the Maine Democratic Party is preposterous.

It feels trite, but not entirely unwarranted, to suggest that “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Somehow, the lessons absorbed by virtually every national Democratic leader about how to connect with voters seem not to have made their way to Maine’s leadership, where the party’s vision is as uninspired as it is unwise.

To be fair, a handful of candidates in Maine have picked up the mantle, campaigning for office on a set of policies that echo the mood of the electorate. But Jonathan Fulford and Gina Melaragno should be the rule, rather than the exception, this year.

Clear policies that speak directly to the needs and demands of women and communities of color, that view change as an asset and an opportunity, are mobilizing and motivating voters across the country toward progressive change and progressive candidates. If the Maine Dems don’t lay out a similar roadmap for Maine voters to follow, and fast, they might just miss the moment to engage en masse their would-be members.

Photo: Maine Democratic leaders speak at a town hall in September.

About author

Kevin Simowitz
Kevin Simowitz 1 posts

​Kevin Simowitz is the political director for Caring Across Generations, a national campaign working to transform the way we care. He lives in Portland, Maine.

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