VPR/VPBS Gov Debate: Into the Valley of Death

In today’s first gubernatorial debate of the general election campaign, David Zuckerman showed us how it can be done. He came straight at Gov. Phil Scott with a well-articulated progressive critique. He was polished, he was focused, he fought the good fight, and it probably won’t do him a damn bit of good.

Interstitial note: The debate was cosponsored by Vermont Public Radio and Public Television, but for the life of me I can’t find the video online. The link above is to the VPR audio.

It was the stoutest debate challenge Scott has faced in his three gubernatorial campaigns — and more. Zuckerman is the first experienced statewide campaigner Scott has faced in his SIX runs for governor or lieutenant governor.

Scott has usually had the benefit of facing the B-Team. Previous opponents did their best, but Cassandra Gekas, Dean Corren, Sue Minter and Christine Hallquist ain’t exactly Murderers’ Row. All four were in their first statewide campaigns, and two had never run for any office. Scott has also enjoyed the soft opposition of those willing to cast him as a well-meaning Nice Guy who’s kind of a Republican In Name Only.

There is a solid Democratic/Progressive critique of Scott; it’s just sat on the shelf for most of the past decade. Zuckerman pulled it down and discovered that there’s some power in that weapon.

Unfortunately, he drew the short straw. He’s opposing Scott at the high point of the governor’s popularity. But Zuckerman is drawing a roadmap for future campaigns against Scott, and may at least put some dents into that Teflon coat.

As for Mr. Nice Guy, he responded with some rare attacks at Zuckerman and quite a bit of passive-aggressiveness ā€” Scott’s favorite variety of aggressiveness when he’s not behind the wheel of Big Green No 14. At this point in his tenure, all aglow with the universal praise for his handling of the pandemic, Phil Scott is unaccustomed to confrontation.

He also, at this stage of his political career, fresh out of new ideas.

Zuckerman laid out his climate change agenda and defended the Global Warming Solutions Act. Scott slammed the GWSA as unconstitutional ā€” while, oddly, forswearing a legal challenge, which is the move to make if he really believes it’s bad law. Beyond that, Scott continues to rely on future technological advances to blunt the damage of climate change.

The lieutenant governor outlined steps he would take on racial justice. Scott fell back on his one initiative in that area: a pilot program that put social workers in a few State Police barracks.

An exchange on gun restrictions did Zuckerman less good. He pushed Scott on universal background checks and waiting periods for gun purchases. In this case, Scott can get away with relying on his past record because his signing of the 2018 gun bills still casts a halo around him. But again, he had nothing new to offer.

On racial justice issues, Zuckerman called for a rethinking of law enforcement centered on community service. Scott talked up his proposal for a massive new prison “campus” to be built by CoreCivic, the company responsible for the Covid-19 outbreak at the Mississippi prison that sickened nearly 200 Vermont inmates. If you think that’s a non-answer, you’d be right; Scott really had nothing to say about Vermont’s sorry record of discrimination in traffic stops and incarceration.

Scott ducked a question on the constitutional amendment, set to appear on the 2022 ballot, enshrining reproductive rights in our founding document. When asked twice if he backed the amendment, he twice replied that he supported 2019’s reproductive rights law — but not a peep about the amendment.

Based on the record established in this debate, Zuckerman would be well advised to focus his attack on one central point: Scott seems to have few new ideas to offer at a time when the state is in a time of high uncertainty and economic change, and many Vermonters are less secure than ever.

On a related note, I had a major beef with debate organizers over the lack of Covid-19 questions. The only pandemic-related question came in the closing minutes, during a “lightning round” when each candidate had only 20 seconds to answer. The question was about how the pandemic had impacted your values ā€” which begs for more than a brief, off-the-cuff answer. And more importantly, failed to include the biggest issue Vermont is facing: How to restore the economy and Vermonters’ prosperity when the pandemic will have unpredictable, long-lasting effects on us all.

For his part, Scott launched a couple of hyperbolic attacks that didn’t really land. He slammed Zuckerman for “your lack of support for the Vermont National Guard” and asked “How do you mend that fence that was destroyed?”

Mixed metaphor aside, Zuckerman made it clear that his only beef was with basing the F-35s in Vermont, not with the Guard.

Scott pulled out a Golden Oldie, asking Zuckerman if he supported large-scale wind energy in Vermont. Or, as Scott put it, “the destruction of ridgelines by wind.” Zuckerman replied that we need renewables of all kinds, and we need to find “the few places [in Vermont] to produce the energy we need.”

All in all, it was a strong effort from Zuckerman and a rather pallid outing for the incumbent. Given the size of Scott’s lead in the latest opinion poll, that’s unlikely to make enough of a difference.

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