As we all eagerly await the arrival of Our Benevolent Overlord Donald J. Trump and the potential shitshow of a rally in a 1400-seat theater for which more than 20,000 tickets have been issued, there’s another high-profile political event tomorrow in Vermont. That would be, of course, Peter Shumlin’s sixth and final State of the State address.
He’s set the stage with a self-congratulatory website chronicling the progress made during his tenure. It’s chockablock with conveniently-limned graphs designed to emphasize the positive markers, sometimes sacrificing the nuance of truth in the process. And he has said this last year will be a process of consolidating the advances of past years, not an occasion for new initiatives.
Which would seem to imply a somewhat minimalist address. That makes sense, given his status as a lame duck dependent on the cooperation of Democratic lawmakers who will be campaigning without him in November. However…
Peter Shumlin isn’t exactly a shrinking violet. He has used past S0S addresses as springboards for major policy initiatives. Would he really go out with a whimper, not a bang?
Dunno. He tried to lower expectations in remarks to VTDigger a couple months ago:
“There won’t be any big initiatives,” confided the governor… “It will be about completing what we promised to deliver.”
Well, there’s already a major gap on that score. He has ruled out a new plan to fix the growing Medicaid gap that’s one of the consequences of expanded health care access.
On the other hand, Shumlin spokesflack Scott Coriell Tweeted the following yesterday:
— Scott Coriell (@scottcoriell) January 5, 2016
Which would seem to support my suspicion that there might be more substance than expected.
A substantial speech doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll get anywhere. Many of his big SOS launches have failed to gain traction in the Legislature — being rejected outright or significantly watered down. I’ve always wondered about Shumlin’s process here, at both the front and back ends.
Front: With a Democratic Legislature, I’d expect that Shumlin might try to clear the path for new initiatives via pre-speech consultations with House and Senate leadership. He’d get a head start on the persuasion game; he’d get a good sense of what’s possible; he’d get the chance to hone his ideas so they’d be more acceptable to lawmakers.
But that isn’t the way it seems to work. In past years, many lawmakers have said they were surprised by Shumlin’s SOS messages, and got no advance word of his proposals. That’s no way to make friends and influence people — especially people with the, shall we say, fully developed sense of self-regard that accompanies high political office.
Back: Once the initiatives are launched, there hasn’t been much of a visible lobbying effort by the Governor or his people. It’s almost as if he expects his golden rhetoric to provide all the necessary inspiration. But that’s not how things work.
This is all very curious given that as Senate President Pro Tem, Shumlin was known as a diligent networker. From what I hear, he always had a strong sense of the room and an ability to connect with fellow lawmakers. As Governor, has he become overly isolated in the corner office? It would seem so. And it seems to have gotten worse throughout his time as Governor.
As for Shumlin’s thesis, that his administration has been a time of progress and change, I have profoundly mixed feelings.
Yes, he has made significant progress in a number of areas, and although he has big Democratic majorities, he’s been fighting strong economic headwinds and dwindling tax bases. History may be kinder to Peter Shumlin than the current atmosphere of instant analysis and second-guessing. (I was a guest on WKVT-AM’s Green Mountain Mornings today, and host Chris Lenois posited that Shumlin’s renewed emphasis on opioid addiction may turn out to be his signature accomplishment. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s a good point. If his initiatives make a real difference in the scope and severity of our addiction problems, they may be his greatest legacy.)
But even so, there’s the nagging feeling that the Shumlin years have been a missed opportunity to do even more — to use the Democrats’ bulletproof majorities to take some real chances. To remake state government in a way that provides equity and opportunity, with a tax system that fairly funds government operations while encouraging positive growth, and economic policies that take advantage of Vermont’s very real strengths instead of weakly imitating the strategies used in much larger states.
And to, ahem, successfully implement health care reform and set the stage for single-payer. That was a very real missed opportunity, and Shumlin’s hubris was partly to blame. Indeed, he spent his first five years as Governor touting single-payer has his top priority. In so doing, he set expectations very high, and that failure weighs heavily on his record.
I haven’t reached a decisive conclusion, have I? But that’s the Shumlin Record: a combination of solid achievement and nagging disappointment. Just as the man himself is a potent mix of strong positives and debilitating negatives: a decisive, energetic chief executive, but one who resisted changing course when necessary and who had more trouble than you’d think in convincing a Democratic Legislature. A charismatic, caring individual with some real blind spots, such as the fabled Jerry Dodge land deal.
As Walt Whitman might say, Peter Shumlin contradicts himself, he contains multitudes. And so does his record.