You Can't Listen And Talk At The Same Time

Ah, the listening tour.  The last public relations line of defense for a candidate or party bereft of ideas or communications platforms.

Do you remember, dear reader, when Hillary Clinton‘s appointment as Secretary of State created a vacancy in the United States Senate, and one Caroline Kennedy decided to throw her hat in the ring for the open slot?  With nothing resembling an electoral history, or any kind of standing (other than being a Kennedy) that would qualify her for office, she turned to a tried and true stalling technique, intended to make her look responsive to voters – the “listening tour”.

What followed was a sad, sometimes difficult to watch collection of gaffes, uncomfortable moments, and mistakes that doomed her fledgeling candidacy.  Even Democrats thought the entire enterprise was absurd.

And that, friends, was one of the most successful listening tours in the history of politics.

Essentially every “listening tour” ever done – by members of both parties – has been a rather transparent sham.  They are just stunts used to generate news headlines and craft a narrative.  But they also never work.  They are a gargantuan waste of time, don’t move voters, and since they are never actually listening tours, they almost never make better, more responsive leaders.

Yesterday, Democrats announced that they would be engaging in a “state wide tour” across Maine to “get ideas from the public” about what issues to pursue in Augusta for the next session.  And their title for said tour, “Get real, Maine.”

Somewhat condescending and insulting sounding name aside, rather predictably the entire effort is just a lame attempt at political messaging, not anything resembling a “listening tour”.  In the same announcement of the trek across Maine supposedly to collect ideas from the public, Democrats used the platform to attack, and apparently listen to voters by telling us what we think.  A choice quote from a ridiculously flattering article on the tour by Mike Tipping:

“Republicans in the legislature backed the governor and his extreme policies time after time. They voted against protecting our children from bullies in schools. They voted to roll back child labor protections. They voted to limit access to family planning for women,” said Assistant Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, speaking at Thursday’s event. “They voted against raising the minimum wage by one quarter — and on the very same day, they voted for an estate tax giveaway to 550 of Maine’s wealthiest residents. How does any of this create even ONE job? How does ANY of it help working Maine families?”

Does that sound like somebody who intends to go around the state listening, asking for input, and collecting ideas from average Mainers about what they think should be the laws pursued in the next session, or does it sound like more partisan hackery?

But the most forehead slap inducing line has to be from Democratic Party Chair Ben Grant:

“The Party of nonsense has had its chance. Now it’s time for the Party of common sense to build an agenda for working people.”

Yes, the Republican Party has had its window.  It had its chance.  A few months in the early part of 2011, and that’s it.  This from the party that “had its chance” for more than four decades, and left the state in absolute shambles.  I think it is safe to say they had their chance to “build an agenda”, and their thinking caps had become so atrophied from unchallenged power that they missed their chance.

That comment is made all the more foolish given the reactions around the state to the Republicans’ first session in power in frickin’ forever, which was overwhelmingly positive.

So, do you want to go listen to Maine voters and figure out where you may have been off base?  Or have you made up your mind that Republicans are reckless, evil monsters destroying Maine?  Sounds more like the latter.  I guess we should ignore all those Democrats, like minority leader Emily Cain, who were saying that the budget was a testament to compromise where the GOP and Democrats were able to work well on to come up with a quality agreement, then?

The Maine Democratic Party can be forgiven for not knowing how to act right now.  This is the first time they have been on the outside looking in on governance in Maine in forty years.  But this entire enterprise is mind-numbingly pathetic.  No one with any sense thinks that anyone involved in this will be going out and soliciting feedback and ideas from Maine citizens.  Rather, they are likely going to be showing their faces in a few friendly echo chambers around the state, and using the tour as a messaging vehicle to attack Republicans.

Which is fine.  Attack Governor LePage and legislative Republicans to your heart’s content.  That’s certainly your right and one of your roles as a party.  I don’t begrudge that, even though their messaging is very confused and more than a little lame.

More than that, it is a little sad to see such a silly and pointless endeavor undertaken, which lies about what its purpose is.  The Maine Democrats can do a whole hell of a lot better than this.  They haven’t been so politically marginalized in decades, and they’re going to start having to re-learn how to fight and win politics in Maine.  This is certainly not their ticket to being taken seriously again.  This is just an ill conceived and ultimately ineffective way to conduct political messaging.

The reality of the Maine Democratic Party at this specific moment in time is that it is a party out of new ideas and quality strategies.  It had its way unchallenged in Maine for so long that it needs a breath of new life.  It is ironic, but what the party probably most needs is to do a real listening tour, talking to Maine voters and finding out once again what makes them tick.  But right now they seem much more interested in talking (and talking down) to Maine voters, than listening.

Get real, indeed.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.