Paul LePage speaks during Tuesday night's gubernatorial debate.
Republican Paul LePage participates in a gubernatorial debate, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2022, at the Franco Center in Lewiston, Maine. LePage is challenging Democratic Gov. Janet Mils. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

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Congratulations. You are now a candidate for governor and are sitting on the debate stage. Here’s a question.

Do you support a hypothetical bill that deals with one specific piece of an incredibly complex issue, with no information whatsoever about the surrounding context?

What if a majority of the 186 elected legislators in Maine managed to pass a bill on the subject, despite huge differences both within and between the parties? Would you sign it?

Yes or no?

Any thinking person would probably recognize it as a silly question. Trying to distill massively consequential and remarkably complex policy challenges into a simple “yes” or “no” is a fool’s errand.  

Yet that is exactly what happened Tuesday night in Maine’s first gubernatorial debate. The journalists peppering the candidates with questions threw a number of abortion-related hypotheticals at former Gov. Paul Lepage. The one that became the biggest soundbite focused on a hypothetical bill passed by the Maine Legislature outlawing abortions after 15 gestational weeks.  

LePage said he would veto such a bill.

Abortion is a complex and emotionally charged issue, to say the least. And I’d be willing to wager that the vast majority of Mainers would agree that abortions are appropriate when, for example, a mother is facing an ectopic pregnancy. I would also bet that most Mainers would oppose elective abortions at 34 gestational weeks.  

As you work toward the middle from those two fairly extreme positions, things get less clear and more complicated.  

But nuance and complexity does not make for good headlines or pithy quips. It does not attract audiences or that sweet, sweet advertising revenue.  

Earlier in the debate, Gov. Janet Mills claimed LePage supported Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban.” LePage called her a liar. The Bangor Daily News editorial board sided against LePage.  

But the so-called Muslim ban was misnamed and way more nuanced than a simple headline. The actual policy did not do anything to would-be visitors from the world’s largest Muslim-majority country, Indonesia. It did not “ban” anyone on account of their faith. The regulation governed North Koreans, not exactly known as a bastion of Islam. So a “Muslim ban” was pithy shorthand, but not reality.    

When candidates talk on the campaign trail, or on the debate stage, it is often just that: talk. Their quips and jabs might be catchy, but looking at the substance of what they actually do and the things they have actually done is much more informative.

That said, there is something valuable in trying to get real answers to hard questions. Unfortunately, the civic groups most suited to that effort often play in the overly simplistic sandbox as well. For example, LePage made headlines when he withdrew from the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine’s questionnaire. His stated reason? He claimed they wanted a pledge that he would support a certain fisheries project with state dollars.  

It would have been better if they had asked LePage, and Mills, and independent Sam Hunkler, to explain their thinking on funding efforts for fisheries support and where stocking efforts fit into their overall vision of our natural resources economy.

And we would be better served by real, substantive debates that don’t play hypothetical “gotcha,” but rather pose questions acknowledging the world for the emotional, complex, challenging place that it is.  

Maybe then we would even get some real answers from candidates and learn something.

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Michael Cianchette, Opinion columnist

Michael Cianchette is a Navy reservist who served in Afghanistan. He is in-house counsel to a number of businesses in southern Maine and was a chief counsel to former Gov. Paul LePage.