A strange little bubble: the proto-candidacy of Bruce Lisman

Former Wall Street panjandrum turned bland public policy crusader Bruce Lisman showed up on The Mark Johnson Show Friday morning, and came about as close to declaring his candidacy for Governor as he could without actually making a declaration.

“I’m leaning strongly toward running,” he said, and indicated he was embarking on a weeklong family vacation that would probably produce a final decision. But while he’s pretty sure he’s running, he’s a lot less sure how he will do it: as a Democrat, as a Republican or as an independent. “If I choose to run, I’m running for the people. I’ll figure out how best to do that.”

Aww. For the people, eh? Well, the people appreciate the kind gesture.

He spent the rest of the hour basically proving my contention that he doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance of ever being Governor.

His answers were awfully rambly and not terribly engaging. He frequently changed subjects in mid-answer — sometimes in mid-sentence. He rarely ended up anywhere close to where he began.
But that’s not the worst problem.

That would be his complete rejection of politics. “I’m not a politician,” he said over and over again. Politicians, he said, live in “a strange little bubble.” He wants to “do away with political rhetoric” and simply “get things done.” He cited the long-avoided Lake Champlain cleanup as an example of how politics fails the people, and how clear-minded leadership could solve big problems.

Here’s the thing. Politics is a dirty, scruffy creature. But it’s the way things work in government. Even a former Wall Street executive can’t simply waltz into the Statehouse and expect everyone to fall into line. Political officeholders represent a variety of constituencies and philosophies. That’s why every piece of government is a compromise, a patchwork, and as often as not a way of kicking the can down the road. We all claim to hate politics, but we want politics to serve and protect our interests — even when those interests are at odds with the greater good.

(Example: farmers have a great deal of influence in Montpelier, so the state has been tremendously reluctant to take them to task for Lake Champlain pollution. More than once, Lisman called for greater enforcement of current laws, and acknowledged that would have a negative effect on farmers. Well, does he think that lawmakers with agricultural constituencies are going to abandon “politics” because Bruce Lisman thinks it’s the right thing to do?)

Repeatedly through the interview, Lisman called for greater resources to tackle various issues: drug abuse, mental health, social services, the environment, poverty, hunger. Finding the money, in his mind, seems to involve some kind of managerial jiu-jitsu which will produce incredible efficiencies and free up the resources needed to solve all our problems.

Lest you think I’m being too harsh on the man, here’s a brief biopsy. Lisman had bemoaned the fact that we failed to clean up Lake Champlain long ago. Johnson asked him how he could have gotten that done faster. And here is what he said.

More enforcement, some will to want to do it. In a competition for money, in a budget that is stretched, to say this is a priority. Our environmental urge shifted to other things, alternative energy, energy efficiency, all laudable. But clean water? Clean water? Couldn’t we have done that earlier?

We could have. I think Governor Douglas made a stab at it. I’m not sure it was an effort that was well-supported or not even sure it was well thought through. I don’t know. I’m just saying I don’t know.

But could we, on a Legislative basis, examine what was happening there, gone to visit the Missisquoi Bay in the summertime, seen how it was degrading? We might have, couple of smaller lakes, don’t forget those, that are troubled.

Did we need somebody from Washington to tell us this? Did we need a lawsuit from the Conservation Law Foundation to force them into action?

Aside from the stunning inability to finish a thought, that quote also reveals an ignorance of how government works. We didn’t make a choice between Champlain and alternative energy; Champlain would have cost a huge amount of money that Vermonters, collectively, lacked the political will to raise. Alternative energy has been encouraged through regulation and incentives, not through direct funding. Even if we had wanted to do so, we couldn’t have dumped alternative energy in favor of Champlain cleanup; the system doesn’t work that way. If he doesn’t realize that, he’s gonna have a hell of a time making government work.

There were plenty of equally incoherent passages throughout the interview. It was painful to listen to. And after all of that, he had the brass-plated balls to claim “I think I lead the league in specifics.” Yeah, sure.

Postscript. At one point, Lisman complained that “people categorize me as a conservative. I say, what the heck?”

Well, as one of those who categorize Lisman as a conservative, let me explain. For starters, Lisman has been sharply critical of Vermont’s Democratic leadership. He has rarely, if ever, said “boo” about the quality of Republican ideas.

He has been extremely sparing with his own views on current events, controversies, and issues. One notable exception was a 2010 speech to a Chamber of Commerce group in South Burlington, in which he made it clear he was a dyed-in-the-wool fiscal conservative who believes ardently in the unbridled application of the free market.

In that speech, he referred to the financial crash of 2008 as “this thing that happened,” “this Darwinian asteroid.” As if it was a natural phenomenon for which nobody could possibly be blamed. Especially not his Wall Street colleagues.

Elsewhere in that speech, he called for significant cuts in corporate and capital-gains taxes, referring to “capital at risk” as “the most precious thing in the galaxy.” He also complained that our tax base was “quite thin,” and then he went full Mitt Romney:

“The taxpaying base is quite thin. Because of the progressive nature of it, there’s a cutoff that excludes more than 50% of potential taxpayers from paying taxes. My view: I think everyone is either in the enterprise or they’re not. You’d want everyone to pay something in.”

He’s wrong on the basic facts. Roughly half of all potential taxpayers don’t pay income tax — but they pay lots of other taxes. Social Security, Medicare, sales, property, you name it. Add it all up, those “freeloaders” pay a larger share of total taxes than wealthy investors do.

Those are not the sentiments of a Democrat or a centrist. Those are the views of a free-market hard-liner who believes that Wall Street should bear no blame for that “Darwinian asteroid” that hit us in 2008. He has never retracted, corrected, or amplified those statements. If I ever interview the guy, I’ll ask him if he still feels that way. Because if he does, then I stand by my characterization of his politics.

5 thoughts on “A strange little bubble: the proto-candidacy of Bruce Lisman

  1. gyrfalcon7

    I can see it now. Campaign slogan, “I’m just saying I don’t know. ”
    I have this horrifying mental image of hundreds of wealthy neophyte Bruce Lismans all over the country being inspired to dive into real world politics by the current success of Donald Trump, word salad and all.

  2. Lee Russ

    “Politicians…live in “a strange little bubble.”

    True. Yet the politicians’ bubble Is a lot larger, and a lot less strange, than the bubble which people in the finance industry occupy.

    If you want to have some fun, find a news story critical of Wall Street and/or finance in general, which has been posted on a site that caters to people in finance. The level of arrogance and privilege expressed in the majority of comments will put to shame almost anything said by almost any politician.

      1. John S. Walters Post author

        Yeah, well, I wasn’t writing about Bernie Sanders. Any more than I was writing about the far more ridiculous Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, etc.

  3. Brooke Paige

    I disagree with John Walters as often as I agree with him – in this case he certainly has valid observations about a fellow who well could split the “conservative” vote and assure a “liberal” victory for Shapleigh Smith in 2016 !


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