The Digger LG Debate: Dancing in the Dark

“Welcome to the Moonlight Lounge. Can I start you off with a beverage?”

Welp, somebody staged a late-afternoon debate in front of a wall of windows, leaving viewers literally in the dark. Maybe the same people who didn’t conduct a pre-debate coin toss and couldn’t find a coin once they realized their omission. And the same people who didn’t nail down the debate format. After he was given his final question, Republican Scott MIlne asked if there would be an opportunity for closing statements. Moderator Anne Galloway was rattled. “Oh boy, closing statements? I hadn’t planned on that,” she said.

Milne soldiered on, folding some closing-statement material into his answer.

But enough about production misfires. As for the Main Event itself, it was a crisp affair with plenty of confrontation between Milne and Democrat Molly Gray.

And Milne won the evening.

This was the first time since Gray entered politics that she looked like a first-time candidate. She was sometimes rattled, she often slipped into academic “debate” mode instead of the political version*, she forced some bits that just didn’t work. It was a bit of an ambush on MIlne’s part; his team clearly withheld their toughest stuff from the relatively low-profile Town Meeting TV forum so they could spring it on Gray at the Digger debate.

*It’s like the difference between amateur wrestling and Monday Night Raw.**

** Now you’re imagining Scott Milne in Spandex.

Smart, tough politics. It didn’t help Milne maintain his “Phil Scott 2.0” nice-guy facade, but it did put Gray back on her heels. Between the debate and Friday’s news of a massive spend for Milne by a national conservative group, she and her team are on notice that this isn’t going to be a coronation of 2020’s Shiny New Democrat (patent pending).

And they should be ready to fight back at the next debate and on the campaign trail. MIlne has plenty of vulnerabilities — in fact, he’s kind of one big walking, talking vulnerability. His team has put together a nice “Scott Milne” package, but is it a solid structure or a balloon ready to be popped?

(The latter prospect is doubtlessly why Team Milne has chosen a limited-exposure strategy, keeping him away from Gray’s statewide forums and not maintaining a schedule of appearances or events around the state. I mean, Gray is spending all her free time going everywhere; how often can Milne actually be seen in public?

I can answer that, because I’m on his email list. I get frequent fundraising pitches and press releases, but I can’t recall getting any events announcements. And there’s not even a “Meet Scott” events listing on his campaign website. From which I conclude that they’ve got him securely encased in bubble wrap, lest he slip up on his newfound message discipline.)

Now, let’s count some punches.

As expected, Milne raised Gray’s spotty voting record. It was a little awkward because Galloway had brought it up earlier on, so Milne was kind of piling on. Gray spent too much time trying to parse things. The better approach is to simply acknowledge it and put it in context with her accomplishments. She’s had a pretty remarkable life. Present the total package, and ask voters to judge her based on what she has to offer the state.

Milne launched a tough and, I’m sure, vastly exaggerated attack on Gray as a spendthrift. He claimed her top six priorities would cost more than a half-billion dollars, and asked her how she would pay for all of it.

Gray wasn’t prepared, and her response wasn’t on point. She asked him to name the six. Which he couldn’t — a bad moment for him, but it didn’t get her off the hook. Even if she didn’t have her own cost estimates at hand, she could have pointed to her own stance — align our budget with our greatest needs. She could have said that she would search tirelessly for funding sources. She could have pointed out the necessity to take strong action to meet our challenges.

Back to Milne for a moment. In a post-debate press release, his press secretary Mike “202 Area Code” Donohue laid out the numbers. And they’re absurd.

The bulk of the alleged cost, $284 million, is in “Last Mile Broadband.” Which presumably means that the Milne campaign took the typical right-now cost of a mile of broadband and multiplied it by the number of unserved households and businesses. That’s not how a universal buildout would work. It’ll be a matter of leveraging loans, grants, incentives and federal funding. It’ll be encouraging and enabling the community-based regional internet providers that have created a new model for broadband access.

The bulk of the rest, $164 million, is for “Universal Primary Care.” Which, I’m sure, is a simple calculation based on today’s insurance marketplace. I don’t think anyone with a brain would argue that we can achieve universal coverage without some sort of cost containment, whether it’s a successful ACO or a Medicare for All type plan or tougher regulation of insurance-industry excesses.

Presumably Gray will be better equipped to answer this attack next time around.

Gray tried some attacks on Milne. But they were essentially process attacks, and those are always less impactful. How many voters really care if Milne refused Gray’s invitation to a series of forums around the state? How many care if someone in his camp undertook a massive public-records fishing expedition looking for dirt on Gray?

It’s hard-knuckle politics, but it’s perfectly legal. The public records request might have been better as a campaign press release than a line in a debate.

As I said above, there’s plenty of fertile ground for attacks on Milne. His ProgressVT plan was designed to look impressive and comprehensive, but a 60-point plan is like throwing all the spaghetti against the wall and hoping something sticks. It’s not focused. And even at 60 points, it manages to underplay or even ignore some huge areas of public policy.

As I wrote previously, his plan includes “nothing about our raging opioid crisis, not a mention of racism, justice, policing or corrections, and barely a nod to climate change.”

Milne thoughtfully provided more fodder for Team Gray in this debate. On racism, he floated a state commission “with communities of color and disadvantaged communities.” Even by the beige standards of state commissions, this is dreadfully vague. And lumps together a variety of groups with different issues and interests. What’s he gonna call it, the “Everybody But Healthy Hetero White Folks Commission”?

It reveals a lack of attention to — and interest in — the issues facing BIPOCs, the LGBTQ community, the disability community, etc.

On a variety of issues, Team Gray could take a close look at Milne’s ProgressVT, pick out policies, and evaluate their likely impact. Just about everything in Milne’s plan is incremental at best, sorely lacking in the necessary heft to address the issues we face.

Take climate change. Milne doesn’t support the Global Warming Solutions Act. His only climate-related policy idea is a sales tax holiday on electric vehicle purchases, which at best would provide a one-time caffeine injection to the market.

Milne’s idea for increasing availability of child care is to lift capacity limits. Now let’s ask child care providers if they favor having higher capacity during a pandemic, or ask parents if they want child care facilities to be turned into puppy mills.

Not entirely far, but good bare-knuckles politics. And Team Milne, with its public records request and national conservative backing and attacks on Gray’s voting record and vastly overblown tax-and-spend attack, have made it clear that that’s how they are going to fight this campaign — no holds barred, eye-gouging, low blows, folding chairs and foreign objects fair game.

Of course, that “low blow” thing might come back to bite him. Boys are far more vulnerable than girls to below-the-belt roughhousing.

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