Two truisms at war:
1. Vermont faces big challenges, and Vermonters are hungry for a new direction.
2. Phil Scott is the apparent front-runner for governor.
Does anybody else see anything wrong with this picture?
Just about everyone agrees that we face a bunch of big problems. Some solutions are in process, more or less successfully (Lake Champlain, school reorganization, health care reform) and others lie squarely in front of us (the annual budget gap, an outmoded tax system, soaring Medicaid costs, bad demographics, wage stagnation).
Vermont Republicans offer an apocalyptic vision of a Vermont bankrupted by Democratic mismanagement and prodigality. Democrats and Progressives acknowledge a long list of challenges we face.
And yet Phil Scott, a man who’s made his political bones by being inoffensive, and whose “platform” so far is about as radical as a bowl of oatmeal, looks to be leading the field. And those Republicans, who view Vermont as teetering on the brink of disaster and in need of far-reaching, fundamental change, would be perfectly happy to elect good ol’ Phil.
Er, that’s the same Phil Scott who happily served in Governor Shumlin’s cabinet and worked with the administration on a variety of issues. At least, he happily did so until he got the gubernatorial itch himself, and started distancing himself from the incumbent.
And then there was last week’s VTDigger Dialogue, bringing together the gubernatorial candidates to discuss our economic challenges. That dialogue produced “general agreement between the Democratic and Republican candidates.”
“What struck me was the amount of agreement there was,” said Eric Davis, a retired professor of political science at Middlebury College who attended the event. “I think there was more consensus than disagreement, it didn’t come across as a partisan event at all.”
The Republicans yammer about an affordability “crisis,” the Dems’ “fiscally irresponsible” ways and “failed policies,” and yet Phil Scott and Bruce Lisman were largely on the same page as Matt Dunne and Sue Minter.
This is the Phil Scott who talks, on his campaign website, of working cooperatively across the aisle, of open-mindedness, of “practical leadership.” Sure, he utters generalities about “a different direction,” but he offers no specifics on what kind of direction he has in mind. And there’s nothing in Phil Scott’s political record to suggest that he’d suddenly become a firebrand in the corner office.
Besides, if he has to work with a Statehouse full of Democrats*, how different could his leadership be? Especially when he comes to the Digger Dialogue and offers the same views as the rest of the field?
*The Republicans picked up some ground in 2014, but they’ll face a much larger and more liberal electorate in 2016, plus they’ll be distinct underdogs in most districts, plus it’s been years since they managed to assemble anything like a full slate of candidates.
So what does it all mean? Well, on the Republican side it means they’re so desperate to win the governorship that they’ll back anyone with a chance to win, even if the candidate is a poor fit with their own rhetoric. As for the electorate as a whole? Here’s what I think.
Voters are of two minds. They want change. They want a fairer economy. They want life to be less of a burden. They want more opportunities and the chance to make their kids’ lives better than theirs.
At the same time, they’re tired. They’ve been through a lot in recent years: a great recession, Tropical Storm Irene, Vermont Health Connect, annual budget crises, contentious debates on a wide range of issues. A whole lot of Vermonters are barely making ends meet. Even in liberal circles, there’s a strong conservative streak: a lot of people fear any change that might alter the essential character of Vermont*, including renewable energy or any kind of development that offends them.
*And that “essential character” is apparently so weak that the slightest breeze could pulverize it into dust.
Besides all that, the prospect of significant change in any aspect of government sparks more fear than hope. Just look at recent debates over tax reform or school governance: the naysayers always come out in force, and their loud, united voices are hard to ignore.
Put all that together, and maybe the desire for some stability — even stagnation — outweighs the push for positive change. Maybe Vermonters would rather have that steady hand, that consultative leader who values community and avoids conflict.
Maybe they’ve had too much spicy food in their politics, and enter The 2016 Café thinking a nice bowl of oatmeal would really hit the spot.