Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Of all the people across the country who have a legitimate chance to be elected governor this year, none probably has as interesting a background as Les Otten. The Maine Republican is best known as a former ski resort mogul. He's also a former part-owner of the Boston Red Sox. More recently, he helped found a company that sells boilers powered by wood pellets.
Otten's background has helped him position himself as someone who knows how to create jobs. With the help of his personal wealth, he's the frontrunner for the Republican nomination (though Steve Abbott and Bruce Poliquin also are credible candidates). He may very well also be the frontrunner right now in the general election, though Democrats have several solid candidates of their own.
However, what's striking about Otten is that, while his background is unconventional, his campaign has been pretty dull. He's touting a jobs plan that, other than a shout-out for wood pellets, could have been written by almost any Republican in any state in the country. He wants to cut taxes (income, capital gains and estate), end teacher tenure, authorize charter schools, reduce Medicaid spending and cut public employee benefits. He also opposes gay marriage and supports a Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. If there's a new idea he has or a subject on which he clearly breaks from Republican orthodoxy, I can't find it.
I don't mean to pick on Otten. It's entirely possible that he would be an interesting, creative governor if elected. Someone who's willing to take a chance on wood pellets probably won't end up being paralyzed by caution in office.
What's interesting to me is that for a candidate such as Otten to have typical views is itself typical -- few candidates, no matter what their background, tout ideas that truly are unconventional. I see a couple of reasons for that.
One is the exigencies of primary politics. The partisans who nominate candidates don't usually want creativity. They want someone whose beliefs and values mirror their own. If a Democrat or Republican ran on unusual ideas ("Let's establish a parliamentary system of government! Let's replace the entire tax code with a value-added tax!) he or she wouldn't be the nominee. It's possible that in the general election Otten can be less of a conformist.
But, it's also worth noting that 99% of the time when candidates say they have new ideas they actually don't. Thousands of people have thought about the public policy challenges facing the United States and have come up with tons of ideas for addressing them. As a result, the candidates running for office usually aren't the first ones to think of anything. When they tout new ideas, what they usually mean is "ideas that are different from my immediate predecessor."
And I suppose you could argue that there's nothing really wrong with that. Being a successful governor doesn't often require new ideas. Usually, choosing the best old ideas and implementing them well will suffice.
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