The First Debate: The Winner Depends On How You Judge It

The terribleness of the moderator was almost irrelevant. The first post-primary gubernatorial debate saw both candidates performing as expected. Challenger Brenda Siegel was feisty, edgy, full of ideas, and unafraid to confront a three-term incumbent. Gov. Phil Scott served up a reheated platter of customary talking points (hey, there was even a “6-3-1” callback) and getting lost in word salad whenever he strayed too far from the script.

Oh, and showing his fangs more often than you’d expect from a Nice GuyTM. He does that a lot.

So who won?

It depends.

If you judged it as a debate contest, awarding points for consistency, logic, and clarity of argument, it was Siegel. Easily.


Many voters evaluate debates on personality, not policy. It’s the old “who would you want to have a beer with?” test, and Scott is our very own George W. Bush. (Without the pointless wars.) He makes people feel comfortable, especially if they just let the words flow gently by. And we do like to feel comfortable. You sit down with Siegel, she may make you a bit uneasy with her energy and passion and inconvenient litany of crises. She’s Rage Against the Machine; the governor is Ray Conniff. (Ask an old person.)

Or, she’s a straight-backed chair and Scott’s a recliner. Where you going to sit?

Siegel offered a comprehensive tour of the crises and challenges we face and a full array of solutions. That ought to be what we look for in a leader, but Vermonters tend to be a self-satisfied lot. We are very fond of our Brave Little State. Its quirks and foibles, its faults, we see as endearing markers of How We Are Different.

Phil Scott plays into that. It’s the source of his political strength.

As difficult a road as it will be, Siegel’s best hope for success is direct attack. Try to penetrate that Teflon coating, get Scott back on his heels, bring out his passive-aggressive streak, and drive home the consequences of settling for comfort in our chief executive.

Here’s the thing. Are all those Vermonters who’ve voted for Scott over and over again ready to take a fresh look at the man and his record? Can they open their eyes to the flashes of arrogance, the self-importance, the occasional meanness of the man, not to mention the raft of managerial missteps on his record? Or are they happy to just go with the flow?

Cynical ol’ me says it’s the latter, but time will tell.

Maybe you don’t believe me about the word salad and the meanness and all of that. So here are some examples from the debate.

You want mean? When asked about the deficits in our public sector pensions, Scott mocked the Legislature’s efforts at solving the problem.

I know a lot of folks, a lot of legislators, ah, said, you know, gathered around singing Kumbaya and this is the answer and it was fulfilled, but it’s not going to do it.

Scott is frequently condescending toward the Legislature. He treats then like a group of ill-behaved schoolchildren he has to clean up after. He expects them to rubber-stamp his proposals and feigns surprise when they don’t. And, of course, there are all the vetoes, many of them based on flimsy grounds.

That sentence is a concise example of word salad: he struggles to find his way until he lands on the “Kumbaya” thing, and then goes back into the underbrush.

How about talking points with little substance? When asked about the opioid crisis and specifically the role of fentanyl, he brought out his rhetorical four-legged stool: prevention, treatment, recovery and enforcement. He repeated those four words multiple times during this exchange without putting the tiniest shred of meat on the bones.

When Siegel noted that his approach didn’t include harm reduction, Scott begged to differ. Sort of: “Prevention, treatment, recovery, enforcement, all four legs of the stool. Harm reduction is a big part of our strategy.”

What the what? I guess harm reduction is the fifth leg of the stool.

How about comfort uber alles? Scott continues to brag about signing those gun-safety measures three years ago. It was an authentic moment of political bravery, but how long will he sit on his laurels? He still opposes any further measures because “we need to pause and perfect” the laws already on the books. How many more years in the “pause,” governor?

Oh, and there was an epic blunder. Siegel criticized Scott for vetoing the Clean Heat Standard bill. He replied with a picky and unclear rationale: the measure was “unconstitutional” because the standard would have been set by the Public Utilities Commission without Legislative approval. And then he added, “They didn’t try to override, so they must agree.”

Siegel pounced. “They did try to override and it failed by a single vote.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Scott acknowledged. He was so anxious to throw shade on the Legislature that he completely botched the most dramatic legislative battle of the year.

None of this is new. I’ve been pointing it out for years. And it never seems to matter. Honestly, Scott isn’t as bad as G.W. Bush in terms of rhetoric and demeanor. But is that our highest aspiration? To have a governor who doesn’t sound stupid? Who (carelessly) wraps his meanness in a thick blanket of bland?

Meanwhile, our ship of state continues to drift. The opioid crisis, the housing crisis, the workforce and demographic crises, a frayed social safety net, racial injustice, a troubled corrections system, climate change, unaddressed infrastructure needs, the ongoing toll of Covid-19, and more: Clearly he’s going to do nothing more on climate change; he offered nothing beyond the already-enacted incentives for electric vehicle purchases, and actually said that we don’t need to develop any in-state renewable energy.

The only time he’s taken significant action during his tenure is when he’s been able to pay for it with federal Covid relief funds. And we’re running short on those.

Vote for Phil Scott. Sit back in your political recliner, turn on Ray Conniff’s Greatest Hits, and take solace in the real and imagined attributes of the Brave Little State.

Or do something different for a change.


4 thoughts on “The First Debate: The Winner Depends On How You Judge It

  1. P.

    Granted I was out of state the last election cycle but he wouldn’t have and will not be getting my vote. First he is still a republican which is major points off. Scatt’s record of actual accomplishments is horrible except for the initial COVID response which I think Vermont as a whole deserves more credit for. The level of passive-aggressive is almost pathological in a grown human and it is costing Vermont’s progress. I can not count the number of businesses that would fail for lack of innovation or competence outside the state boundaries. What is Scatt offering for his vision if re-elected? More of same?

  2. Greg Dennis

    Phil Scott will be easily re-elected because way too many Vermont Democratic voters still give him too much credit for his early response to Covid and haven’t been paying at doing since then. Sad but true. Even many environmentalists will support even despite the fact that, as you nicely note here, “he actually said that we don’t need to develop any in-state renewable energy.”

  3. P.

    To follow up my earlier comment I love the people of Vermont and the land itself, but I have no use for empty speech. The Scatt administration has shown a repeated lack of competency that would/ should be a firing offense in the private sector. There are some real challenges and the federal largesse is going to end. I applaud Brenda Siegel for asking uncomfortable questions that need asking. I would like more reporting on her accomplishments and proposals before my committing as more than an anti-incumbant protest vote.

  4. P.

    It is wet and blustery so I online more than usual today. A few more thoughts prompted by VTDigger articles. Its being reported that the Scott administration has found an extra $20 million in federal funding for the emergency rental program, but its only going to do x amount for less people for a short time. Can we get an actual break down of where that $20 million is going, because that is not a small amount of money in a state this size. What is getting spent on those in need and what is going to “administrative costs”. Convenient timing for the upcoming election by the way. It is also being reported that “Vermont ranks 2nd in federal earmark funding per capita, thanks to Patrick Leahy’s influence”. Even though it is yet to arrive, I think of two things- what would Vermont be like without federal funding and what would Phil Scott’s political viability without the benefits from that largesse? Lastly the Cannabis board didn’t know even the most basic time table for spring planting? This October 1 date has been known for years and there may not be a crop ready for sale? Goes back to my comments about compentence. Again, the date has been known and not like Vermonters don’t know how to grow pot and not like there isn’t going to be a market for it, not like other states haven’t already implemented this…


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