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?
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.