Good riddance to the State of the State

I have to say, I’ve kind of been waiting for somebody to do it, and Gov. Paul LePage just did. He walked away from the pomp and preening phoniness of the State of the State address.

I have to admit that at one point in my life, I loved watching the State of the Union. Growing up, it was a major political event, and it is easy to be seduced by the Americana it represents. I liked it so much that I even enjoyed watching political figures I despised — like Bill Clinton — give the speech.

So, too, did I love the State of the State. The first one I attended was in 2002, for Angus King’s final address to the Maine Legislature, where I recall they gave him a leather jacket of some kind to wear as he rode his motorcycle off into the sunset.

Gov. Paul LePage delivers his 2015 State of the State address. Ashley L. Conti | BDN

Gov. Paul LePage delivers his 2015 State of the State address. Ashley L. Conti | BDN

Indeed, I may have loved the State of the State more, because it was local and afforded me an opportunity to see the inner halls of government working in all its supposed glory.

But that romantic picture of both the State of the Union and the State of the State died an excruciating, painful death a long time ago. I’m not sure what killed it, exactly, but I have a couple theories.

The first is the simple fact that the specialness of the event has eroded considerably. It used to be an interesting treat to see an American president or a governor stand up and be a leader, deliver a powerful speech, and command an agenda to follow.

Today, we see and hear from our leaders so much, with such nauseating repetition, in an avalanche of different ways — television, radio, email, social media, internet news — that, frankly, we are more than a little sick of hearing from them. Now, a speech in the halls of Congress is a boring retread with absolutely no value.

Hell, for the past few years, I’ve even read the State of the Union address, published by the White House itself, before the speech was even given. One year recently, I saw a Maine news outlet follow along with LePage’s speech and track where he went “off script,” deviating from his planned remarks.

Not quite as special as it used to be.

The other, arguably more important reason these events no longer hold any value to me — or anyone else for that matter — is that I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with politicians, and my level of revulsion at what I’ve seen and overall political cynicism have increased to the point where I no longer am in awe watching powerful people congratulate each other on their own importance.

I’m not alone on this. And now we are left with a situation where a long held political tradition has lost its shine, its relevance, and its entire point of existing. It should end.

Why were they ever held in the first place? Well, to fulfill constitutional requirements and report on the state of the union to lawmakers. To inform the public about government priorities. To rally support behind initiatives. To speak directly to the people, unfiltered by media. And most importantly, to look like a strong leader and hopefully improve your approval rating.

That is, after all, why governors started imitating presidents in giving mini versions of the State of the Union address: to look presidential and playact at being a presidential-style leader.

Every single one of those reasons for an address is now irrelevant.

A message to lawmakers can taken any form, including the written form LePage will use this year.

The public can be (and is) informed in a million different ways already.

The speech does nothing to rally support behind initiatives, particularly with the oversaturated communications channels I spoke of earlier.

It is easy, as LePage has found, to speak — and interact — directly with people in your state through town hall meetings. A speech barely anyone watches on television can’t accomplish that in any significant way anymore.

And as for looking like a strong leader and improving your approval ratings? These speeches haven’t had any discernible impact in well over a decade.

So why do them anymore? Because it makes a leader feel important? Because meaningless pageantry and deluded self-regard feed the ego? Because we’ve always done it?

No. These speeches have lost their meaning, their impact and their value, and there is no longer any reason to do them.

I hope the trend continues, regardless of who the next governor is, and I wouldn’t mind if the next president, Republican or Democrat, did the same.

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.