Well, if you wanted fireworks, you didn’t get ‘em. Both candidates at last night’s debate, aired live on Vermont PBS, seemed so focused on getting out their talking points that they barely interacted — even though one-third of the debate was dedicated to candidates asking questions of each other.
So, how’d they do, topline?
Grading on something of a curve here. Phil Scott significantly outperformed my expectations, which had been diminished by his subpar outings in pre-primary debates. There was a lot less word salad, a lot more sticking to his core talking points.
Minter did well. She was forthright in her presentation; she stood her ground on potentially controversial subjects like wind power. But she missed some opportunities. She could have confronted Scott on his bland boilerplate and pressed him to offer specifics. She completely whiffed on Scott’s change in position on climate change. I saw a candidate who was more interested in her own talking points, and in not making a mistake, than in directly confronting her opponent.
And, given the fact that Scott is the presumed front-runner and she didn’t lay a glove on him, he gets the decision on points. If he can rope-a-dope the entire campaign like this, his chances of winning increase.
For his part, Scott failed to put any meat on the bare bones of his agenda. He evaded questions that sought specifics. For instance, it’s downright weird that a guy who’s been in state government for the last 15 years can’t name a single cut he would make in the budget.
Nope, it’s all “efficiencies” and “common sense”. The kind of stuff we might expect from an outsider. Phil Scott ought to know the inner workings of state government. It shouldn’t be that hard to come up with a short list of cuts. It’d give him some easy credibility. Sooner or later, he’s got to add some substance to his empty pieties.
Of course, having a short list of empty pieties is a pretty good debating tactic. Scott hammered home the same few points over and over again, leaving the viewer no doubt about where he stands. Minter kind of went laundry-list, offering a lot of specifics but leaving less of a clear impression.
He did sneak in a few items aimed at shoring up his moderate image. He adjusted course on climate change; he said transgender people should use the restroom of their choice; and he went to Governor Shumlin’s left on a couple of labor issues. He is not in favor of banning teacher strikes, and he would not try to renegotiate state employees’ contracts. “A deal is a deal,” he said — but then made it clear that future deals would be tougher to come by, thanks to his hardline stance on the budget. Those are relatively easy things to say; his core approach of limiting the budget and refusing to raise any taxes or fees remains intact.
If I were advising both camps — well, if I were advising both camps, I’d advise them not to listen to me. But if I were, here’s what I’d say.
Scott: A good start. We need to work up some specifics to offer, lest you be pigeonholed as A Man, Bland, Without A Plan. Relax; your audience is with you and wants you to succeed.
Minter: A good start. Try to focus on a few key talking points. Avoid laundry-list answers, which fail to leave an impression. Don’t answer every question with ideas for new or expanded government programs. Tone down the hand-waving just a bit (although it was less noticeable than in pre-primary debates).
I’d point to the Democratic National Convention as a model for Minter. It was the first time since perhaps JFK that the Democrats combined solid liberal policies with actual patriotism. Not the astroturfy patriotism of George W. in a flight suit, but a patriotism that calls to America’s highest aspirations.
In terms of the gubernatorial race, that means focusing primarily on the economy and making the case I’ve made in this space: programs that boost opportunity are not only good for struggling Vermonters, but are also the best way to boost the overall economy. Health care, child care, family leave, schools, higher education: they all contribute directly to prosperity by equipping more people to get good jobs or pursue entrepreneurial pathways.
She could also emphasize that progressive policies and good schools are great ways to attract and retain more young people.
Finally, Minter needs to actively listen to Scott and find opportunities to counterpunch. He has flaws; she needs to exploit them. Last night’s format allowed plenty of time for that; she rarely took advantage.
Whether she likes it or not, she’s up against a popular candidate with high positives and some real holes in his game. She’s going to have to take some of the shine off Phil Scott if she’s going to win.
Postscript. What the hell was up with the lighting? I realize the Chandler Center isn’t a TV studio, but the lights were shining brightly on the tops of everyone’s heads and left their faces in the dark. Good thing nobody on stage has a bald spot; the glare could have sparked an epidemic of temporary blindness.
Note: As of this writing, Vermont PBS has yet to post the debate video online. You should be able to find it via this link.