Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

When last I left you, I signed off with

Vermont already has an oversupply of cautious Democrats.

Let’s pick it up from there. Now, I could be talking about legislative leadership, which has developed a habit of scoring own goals in its “battles” with Gov. Phil Scott. But in this case, I’m talking about campaigns for governor, in which the Democrats have not exactly covered themselves in glory.

Over the past 20 years, the Vermont Democratic Party has nominated a top-shelf candidate for governor a mere five times ā€” incumbent Howard Dean in 2000, Doug Racine in 2002 and Peter Shumlin in 2010, ’12 and ’14.

(I’m calling the 2014 Shumlin “top shelf” only because he was the incumbent. Otherwise he was a deeply flawed candidate who came within an eyelash of losing to Scott Milne, objectively the worst major-party gubernatorial candidate in living memory.)

Otherwise it’s been a parade of worthies with good intentions but few resources and no real hope. Whenever a popular Republican occupies the corner office, the Democrats’ A-Team scurries away like cockroaches when the light goes on.

And it’s beginning to look like 2020 will be another verse in the same old song. Former education secretary Rebecca Holcombe is in the race; Brenda Siegel, who finished third in the 2018 primary, appears likely to run. Meanwhile, Attorney General TJ Donovan and Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman continue to Hamlet it up. I covered Donovan in my most recent post; as for Zuckerman, he told me in June that he’s in no hurry.

“We don’t have to start as early as someone lesser known. If I’m going to challenge the governor, I’ll have my kickoff in November or December.”

Yeah, well, here’s the problem. It’s fine for Zuckerman, or Donovan, to wait until the snow’s flying. But other potential candidates who don’t enjoy that luxury must consider the twin challenges of a primary against one or two statewide officeholders followed by a run against Phil Scott.

In other words, the indecisiveness of the top tier politicians makes it less likely that someone from the next tier will enter the race. And that would leave the Dems with 2018 revisited: an underwhelming field of candidates who’d have little time and few resources to make their cases. (Or 2008, when then-House speaker Gaye Symington essentially took a bullet for the party by launching a last-minute bid for governor after everyone else had backed away from the challenge.)

Nothing against Holcombe or Siegel, or whoever else may be lurking in the weeds. (O Ethan, Where Art Thou?) Holcombe is very smart, and could make a really good governor, but has no experience as a candidate. That’s usually a prescription for failure. Siegel finished a surprisingly strong third in the 2018 primary ā€” but the field was extremely weak, and all four candidates had no experience on the campaign trail. There is room for more candidates, but the looming shadowy presences of Donovan and Zuckerman are forbidding indeed.

So, free advice to the A-Team: Lead, follow or get out of the way. Consider the party and the cause, not just your own convenience.

Postscript. This is very easy for me to say. I’m not the one pondering whether or not to abandon a good job and pour a year-plus of my life into an all-out venture with a high risk of failure. But those who occupy prominent real estate in the political scene must bear the responsibilities that go with their privileged positions. Which includes exercising leadership, even when it’s inconvenient.

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