The avalanche of general election debates has begun. Yesterday’s Democratic LG forum (watchable at the link) was the first, I think, and the predominant theme was message discipline. Meaning, if you’d set up a drinking game for each candidate, you would have been dead before closing time. Take a drink when
Molly Gray says “Born on a farm in Vermont”
Ralph Corbo says “Military-Industrial Complex”
Scott Milne says “Phil Scott”
All three participants stuck to their scripts. Candidates were not pushed out of their comfort zones. There was only a brief hint of an attack line. Actually, the harshest attack was Corbo’s slam on Vermont’s establishment media for barring minor-party candidates from their debates. More on that later.
For the two main contenders, a boilerplate performance warrants a different grade. Milne has never been disciplined in his political life, but he stuck closely to his self-positioning as an experienced businessman and moderate Republican who can effectively partner with Gov. Phil Scott. A solid if uninspiring performance. Kudos, I assume, to his campaign manager, Sen. Corey Parent, for taming the beast.
Gray turned in a similar outing. But for her, that’s kind of a disappointment. She has yet to advance her presentation from the very beginning of her campaign, when she leaned heavily on personal biography. Those who view her as an empty vessel could point to this debate as evidence. It wasn’t inspiring, merely competent. In terms of compelling presentation, she didn’t establish separation from Milne. As she will have to do, if the VPR/VPBS poll is anywhere near accurate.
By the standards of minor-party fixtures like Cris Ericson and Emily Peyton, Corbo was surprisingly coherent. He had his talking points and expressed them clearly. Of course, they were the talking points of an unreconstructed hippie, but there was no hint of unrestrained ranting. Except for the media part.
As the forum was closing, Corbo used part of his closing statement to slam VPR and VTDigger (specifically naming Scott Finn and Anne Galloway) for excluding minor-party hopefuls from their debates. This is founded on a couple of faulty beliefs.
First, gaining ballot status is a breeze in Vermont and doesn’t entitle you to free access to the media. Corbo is the candidate of the “Banish The F-35 Party,” which was apparently custom-created after his unsuccessful run in the Democratic primary. It’s perfectly reasonable for media outlets to make reasonable decisions about candidate viability. I’m sure if the Progressive Party deigned to field a candidate, they’d be welcome on any debate stage. Corbo, not so much.
Second, Corbo and Ericson and Peyton and their ilk harbor the belief that, if only they could be seen on equal footing with Republicans and Democrats, the voters would flock to their cause. This is nonsense. If they were on every debate stage, they’d still be marginal figures. If anything it’s the opposite: Voters get a solid look at a Cris Ericson, they’re gonna run screaming in the other direction. Gentle reminder:
AAAAGGGGGHHHHHH quick, I need a restful image to cleanse the palate
Whew. That’s better. Now I remember why I used to call this guy “Mahatma.”
Anyway, back to the show. A few curiosities about Debate 1.0:
The closest thing to a shot across anyone’s bow came after the last question of the evening, about how candidates proposed to pay for their policy ideas. Gray’s brainstorm was aligning the budget with our greatest needs, which sounds exactly like something Phil Scott would say. Then she took a half-hearted swipe at Milne, noting that he made no attempt to identify funding sources for his infamous 60-point ProgressVT agenda.
Really? The Democratic candidate trying to paint the Republican as the true spendthrift?
Well, the moment came and went. She didn’t try to press the point, and MIlne ignored the bait.
On more than one occasion, Milne invoked the reputation of his late mother Marion. As Republican lawmaker 20 years ago, she voted in favor of civil unions — and was defeated for re-election. A noble event in our politics, and one that Sonny Boy has shown no sign whatsoever of duplicating. But it allowed him to comment on racial justice as if he cared. Which, to judge by the complete absence of justice from his 60-point agenda, he doesn’t.
There was a curious gap in Gray’s answer to the same question about racism. She talked about her work in the international arena, but didn’t even mention her current job as an assistant attorney general. Maybe she feels constrained from doing so, maybe she doesn’t want to even hint at differences with her boss TJ Donovan, but it’s just weird that she didn’t even bring it up.
Overall, this debate wasn’t one for the history books. Upcoming encounters hosted by VTDigger (today at 5:30) and VPR (Tuesday, recorded at 9:00 and broadcast at noon) will be more impactful because they’re on higher-profile platforms and they will be one-on-one matchups between Gray and Milne.
Looking forward to a little more substance and a lot more life.