We’re gonna need a whole lot of cheese

… To go with all that whine.

“Tis the season for complaints about dirty campaign tactics. It’s a game we love to play in Vermont, because we so ardently cherish the belief that Our Politics Are Better. Smaller scale, personal connections, trust, character, etc., etc. None of that nasty big-money negative attack stuff.

But we have our very own twist on “negative campaigning” — the ever-popular double reverse “accuse your opponent of negative campaigning.”

This has become a dominant theme in the race for lieutenant governor. Scott Milne accuses Molly Gray of being backed by a “shady” political action committee and hints at illegal collusion — without offering any proof. The PAC, Alliance for a Better Vermont Action Fund, produces ads that tie Milne to a national conservative PAC (Republican State Leadership Committee Vermont) that’s spending big money on his behalf — but cannot prove that Milne will feel any obligation to toe the RSLC’s line. Gray offers a selectively-phrased invitation to Milne to stop the negative talk and campaign on the issues. MIlne replies that the only negative advertisements are from the ABVAF, while all his advertisements are positive. Which is true, his ads have been positive*; but his own campaign traffics heavily in attacks on Gray. Gray drops hints that the multi-millionaire Milne is trying to buy the lieutenant governorship with his own money. Yes, Milne has spent roughly $100,000 on his campaign, but that’s far from “buying the election” territory.

*So far. On Friday, Milne reported spending $30,000 on TV ads that mention himself and Gray. Presumably they won’t mention Gray in a positive light.

In the race for governor, incumbent Phil Scott is indirectly (the Phil Scott way) accusing opponent David Zuckerman of negative campaigning — by saying that he would never stoop to such tactics himself, cough, ahem, harrumph.

The truth is, all these attacks about attack politics aren’t going to move the needle.

Political reporters, me included, spend a lot of time reporting on money in politics, but there’s not much evidence that the voters care. In his first campaign for governor, Phil Scott benefited enormously from $3 million from the Republican Governors Association. Democrats tried to tie Scott as beholden to the RGA and its conservative agenda, but it didn’t take with the voters because it didn’t jibe with Scott’s reputation as an authentic Vermonter and an old-fashioned moderate Republican.

There have been only two times I can recall where a money attack made a difference: The respective Republican senatorial candidacies of Rich Tarrant and Jack McMullen. Both spent huge amounts of their own money on runs for U.S. Senate, and both came a cropper. In both cases, the “self-funded rich guy” argument was congruent with their political weaknesses, which had at least as much to do with their outsider status as their wealth. In fact, one could make a good argument that the self-funding wasn’t what killed their campaigns — it was the complete out-of-touchness of the candidates. How many teats on a milk cow, Mr. McMullen?

Besides that, I have to say I haven’t seen anything in campaign statements or advertisements that really qualifies as “negative campaigning.” It’s nowhere near “Barry Goldwater Will Drop The Bomb” territory. The ads from Zuckerman and ABVAF are more like ” contrast advertising,” which takes selected facts and lines them up into a (hopefully) effective attack.

The Action Fund says Milne is being backed by the same conservative forces that support Donald Trump and are trying to force through Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court. That’s true. What’s not true, or at least not provable, is the implication that Milne will be answerable to the national conservative agenda — that he’s a right-wing wolf in moderate’s clothing.

Zuckerman’s advertisements blast Scott for his frequent vetoes of bills passed by the Dem/Prog Legislature. Which is absolutely true. It’s the interpretation that differs. Zuckerman depicts Scott as an obstacle to progress, while Scott argues that he’s an effective counterweight to the excesses of the Dems/Progs. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

I suppose the campaigns have to do something to fill the time. It gets boring just talking about policies and platforms, and the potential payoff for a negative ad that hits home is too great to pass up. But there’s something fundamentally reductive about this attempt to paint one’s opponent as the negative one. In itself, that’s negative campaigning, isn’t it?

Let’s just leave it here. No one’s hands are clean. Nor should they be. Drawing a contrast between yourself and your opponent is part of the game. That involves choosing the least flattering material about your opponent.

Nothing that I’ve seen from any Vermont campaign — or independent PAC — has really been out of bounds. I’d call it hard-nosed campaigning, and nowhere near as tough as what you routinely see in other states. And again, I see no sign that it’s influencing the voters. All this complaining just makes candidates look like whiners, and that’s not what they’re aiming for.


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