The limits of introspection

It sounds like Governor Shumlin has reached the end of his post-election navelgazing after ten entire days, and he has found that the reasons for his shocking near-defeat are largely external. Yes, he accepts responsibility for failing to listen to Vermonters and he promises to do better on that score. But as for the widely-held notion that there was a personal message in the election results? Not so much.

You talkin' to me?

You talkin’ to me?

Shumlin appeared on WDEV’s Mark Johnson Show this morning (podcast should be up shortly), and Mark opened the hour with a pretty solid grilling of the Governor about the whys and wherefores of the gubernatorial election.

When asked what messages he took from the returns, Shumlin named two:

— On policy, “there’s a feeling that folks are frustrated” on pocketbook issues, school spending, and continuing wage stagnation for middle- and working-class people. Which is not just a Vermont problem, he was quick to point out, but a national trend, for which he can bear no special responsibility.

— A vaguely-defined brace of regional and local issues. The Vermont Gas pipeline may have cost him votes in Addison County, and his support for ridgeline wind was a problem in the Kingdom. Aside from those two examples, no specifics.

I can accept that Shumlin was confronted by local concerns as he campaigned around the state, but I haven’t seen any evidence for a localized rejection of him. When I looked at four state senate districts, in different parts of the state, I saw a very clear trend: the Governor polled consistently behind Democratic senate candidates, by a similar margin in each of the four counties.

The general message, he said, was “You’ve got to listen more… Don’t get too far out in front of the troops.”

And then Mark tried to explore the personal dimension. Was the election about policies, or about Shumlin personally?

Safe to say he didn’t want to touch that with a ten-foot pole. “I’ll leave that to the pundits,” he said.

Mark followed up with a direct reference to the Jeremy Dodge land deal, which seemed to resonate with a lot of voters. And not in a good way. Shumlin pivoted immediately to generalities: “I’ve got to do my job better going forward.”

Mark: Was this all about policy, then?

Shumlin: I’ll  leave that to the pundits.

Earlier in the interview, Shumlin had said he fully expected a close election because of what he heard on the campaign trail, and his own campaign’s internal research (which he wouldn’t give any details about). At this point, Mark returned to that idea: Didn’t you hear anything from Vermonters about your own style, your personality? Why not talk about it?

Shumlin: “I have talked about it.” Back to generalities: “There were lots of messages in this election.” And then it was eyes forward to the “tough decisions” that lie ahead. “I’ve got to roll up my sleeves and get back to work.”

A bit later, Mark noted that while Vermont Gas might have cost him votes in Addison County, that didn’t explain Shumlin’s troubles in the Burlington suburbs, where he polled poorly and the Dems lost multiple House seats. His only response was another reference to general “economic frustration.”

All in all, he made it pretty clear that he’s closed the book on the past and is ready to “roll up his sleeves and get back to work.” Nothing more to see here folks, move it along.

I can’t say I’m surprised by the lack of personal introspection, but I am disappointed.

If this election was about policy not personality, then I’m left wondering why one individual so badly underperformed the rest of the Democratic ticket. Why the Governor was almost thrown out of office, while his party retained a strong grip on the legislature?

He did admit that he’d gotten a bit distant, that he was listening to the same small group of people too much. And he committed himself to getting around the state more, and holding open public events (of an unspecified kind) that would get him in touch with a broader variety of viewpoints. And that’s a good thing, as far as it goes (and if it really happens).

But clearly, there are dysfunctional elements in his administration and his own conduct, and it sounds like he’s unwilling to go there. Which, in my view, is a huge opportunity missed.

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