The VPR/VPBS LG Debate: Backwards in High Heels

Molly Gray was under some pressure today, to come back from last week’s meh debate performance and stand up against the attacks of Scott Milne. And she had to do so within the strictures placed on women and people of color who run for office: They have far less latitude than white men in displaying emotion of any kind or going on the attack. Obama consciously kept himself in check to forestall any “Angry Black Man” reactions. Hillary Clinton had to walk a tightrope — backwards, in high heels — while Donald Trump threw rotten tomatoes at her.

Gray did a fine job. She stood her ground. She attacked Milne’s record without sounding, in that wonderful world of female stereotyping, bitchy. It helped that Milne had shot his wad last Thursday; he had no fresh attack lines to spring on his opponent. All he could do was lob the old stuff at her, and this time she was fully prepared to answer.

Meanwhile, Milne often seemed churlish. He pushed lines of attack past the point of diminishing returns. He was patronizing. He complained about her answers. He was less skilled than she at deflecting to desired talking points. His performance did nothing to advance his campaign’s positioning of MIlne as Phil Scott 2.0, a nice-guy authentically Vermonty moderate Republican.

His handlers had better get him back into the bubble wrap. It’s time for Operation Deep Freeze to go into effect. Keep him out of the public eye as much as possible, to limit the chances that he’ll go off script and default to his snarky, self-pitying ways.

Now… let’s count punches.

On multiple occasions, almost to the point of pain, Milne assaulted Gray’s admittedly poor voting record. He did so directly, and he often slipped references into unrelated exchanges. And he tried very hard to tie her to the misadventure of A Better Vermont, a Gray-supporting independent PAC.

Gray’s answers were concise and direct, and the more Milne pressed his points, the more damage he did to himself.

Milne’s first moment of weakness came on a question over Proposition 5, the amendment that would enshrine reproductive rights in the Constitution. Milne repeatedly ducked a question on whether he supported it, instead (as did Gov. Phil Scott) falling back on general support for reproductive rights.

I don’t know why this is such a sore point for the Republican ticket. Are they trying to backdoor appeal to their party’s anti-abortion base? Both Milne and Scott are pro-choice in almost every other respect. Why balk at the amendment?

There was a strong exchange on support from independent PACs. Gray asked Milne if he would disavow the $210,000-and-counting investment in his campaign made by the Republican State Leadership Committee. “They came in with money because they think I can win,” he responded, and then tried to turn the tables — asking Gray about the Vermont-based IE-PAC supporting her. The Alliance for a Better Vermont Action Fund (ABV for short) stepped in it last week when it launched an attack on Milne’s voting record that turned out to be based on incomplete information.

Ever since, Milne’s backers have been bashing Gray for the actions of an independent entity. Gray pointed out that she had no connection to ABV, and turned the tables on Milne for having the support of “the dark money forces trying to take control of the Supreme Court.”

It’s an effective way of drawing a line between the two candidates, when the election will be decided by liberal voters who might be more familiar with Milne than Gray. The RSLC backing is a big help to Milne’s underfunded effort, but it comes with a truckload of baggage.

Let’s make something clear here. Gray is not responsible for the activities of ABV, and Milne isn’t responsible for whatever monkey business RSLC tries to pull. (Which apparently includes a massive fishing expedition into Gray’s professional activities and a clearly biased anti-Gray push poll, along with hundreds of thousands in TV ads.) But Milne is vulnerable on the “consider the source” question. He’s benefiting from a massive investment from outside conservative sources. There’s a contradiction between that support and his positioning as a moderate Republican who’s at odds with the direction of the national party. There is no such contradiction between Gray and ABV on policy.

Milne pressed Gray on her voting record, snarking that “I assume you’ll be voting in November, since your name is on the ballot.” Now, if you’re a Milne fan you might have applauded at that “gotcha” moment. But Milne’s number-one task in this election is to convince centrist and center-left voters that he’s acceptably moderate. Repeatedly hammering on the negative isn’t helping him get there.

“We can spend the rest of the debate and the election talking about voting records,” Gray replied, and smoothly changed the subject. That’s the right tack: Acknowledge and move on.

This again is a difference between campaign debating and the academic variety. Present an approachable, reasonable face, hit your points, don’t dwell on your opponent’s attacks. In an academic debate setting, Gray (and Milne) would lose points for ducking questions and changing the subject. In a political debate, the idea is to get your ideas out there in an appealing package. And don’t take the bait.

Milne asked her who she supported for governor. She answered “I’m voting for the Democratic ticket, starting with Joe Biden.” That answered his question, but he pushed on repeatedly. I don’t know why Gray wouldn’t just flat-out say she was voting for David Zuckerman, but that’s a small “gotcha” point scored by Milne at the expense of looking like a scold.

When MIlne brought up his attack from last week, on his campaign’s clearly inflated estimate of the costs of her proposals, she had a simple ready answer. “Leadership is about identifying priorities,” she said. “I don’t know which consultant came up with those numbers.” Gray also had a couple of budget-cutting ideas in hand: Ending the $10,000 remote-worker grant, which seems especially unnecessary when outsiders are flocking to Vermont because of Covid-19, and ending Vermont’s reliance on out-of-state prisons.

Gray had a couple of good punches on Milne’s past statements. In 2016, when he was running against Sen. Patrick Leahy, Milne based his entire campaign on ethics, transparency and campaign finance — on the negative effect of D.C. money. And now, as Gray pointed out, his prospects are being buoyed by an influx of D.C. money.

She also pointed out Milne’s 2016 statements in support of Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader. Again, that’s something that hasn’t aged well, especially for a candidate doing his best to appeal to the Vermont middle. Milne’s response was borderline incoherent; he repeated his attack on national dark money, and opined that McConnell is “effective.”

Gray also tied her current work in the Attorney General’s office to issues surrounding equity in justice, and followed it up with concrete policy ideas. Milne offered a boilerplate “All Vermonters and all Americans need to be treated with dignity,” and oddly (in this context) asserted that the assumption of innocence was baked into America.

Yeah, Scott. Just ask a black person about that. Our long, awful history of discrimination in policing and incarceration, and the post-slavery century of using the legal system as a weapon against black people, would suggest otherwise. It’s easy for a white guy to, sorry, whitewash America’s history of juridical racism.

MIlne indicated his opposition to the Global Warming Solutions Act, and asserted that it is unconstitional. To which I have the same question as I have for Gov. Scott: If you believe it’s unconstitutional, why not challenge it in court?

He offered little of substance on climate change, except undescribed incentives to draw climate entrepreneurs to Vermont. Gray smartly pointed to the damage climate change is already doing in Vermont — drought, fires, threats to the ski industry.

I do wish Gray would confront Milne directly on the issue of experience. It’s a subtle slap at her youth and voting record. But what, exactly, is Milne’s relevant record? He’s run for office three times, but otherwise has been absent from the government arena. And candidates with business experience who tout their ability to “run government like a business,” like Michigan’s Rick Snyder and New Hampshire’s Craig Benson, tend to crash and burn.

Because in truth, you can’t run government like a business. It’s like saying you should run a law school like a football team. The goals and measures of success are entirely different. I lived in New Hampshire during Benson’s single term as governor — yes, he was so bad that he overcame voters’ reticence to reject first-term incumbents — and he was a complete disaster.

There’s also plenty of fodder for attacks on Milne. His much-touted 60-point ProgressVT plan is weirdly silent on a host of urgent issues. Nothing on the opiate crisis or the pervasive issues in our corrections system. Precious little on climate and racial justice. If ABV is looking for something to do beyond ill-considered attacks on Milne’s voting record, it could spend some time exploring PVT and pointing out the many holes in that Swiss cheese of policy agendas.

And now we sail onward. Gray will continue to criss-cross the state. Milne, as far as I can tell, will go back into his hidey-hole and emerge only occasionally. Gray will try to make herself familiar and acceptable to the center-left electorate. Milne will have to try to strike a better balance between attacking Gray and burnishing his moderate credentials.

Behind it all is the RSLC, the one entity with the resources to overwhelm this campaign. They’ve already spent $210,000; how much more will they dump into our brave little state?

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