Shumlin speech: Of praise and politics

Gov. Peter Shumlin delivering his 2012 state of the state address. VTD/Josh Larkin

Gov. Peter Shumlin delivering his 2012 state of the state address. VTD/Josh Larkin

Unlike most state of the state speeches, Gov. Peter Shumlin’s very first effort was almost totally devoid of politics. In other words, it was almost entirely political.

Exactly 47 of its 3,514 words (in the written text) dealt with a specific proposal – the new “Vermont strong” vanity license plates designed to raise money for the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund. As specific proposals go, that one is notably non-controversial.

But so was almost everything else in the speech, which seemed to go out of its way to avoid offending anyone.

Shumlin did take the risk of annoying conservatives by spending all of 40 words claiming that the state could “lead the nation in arresting the skyrocketing cost of health care,” a task on which the Green Mountain Care Board “is hard at work.”

But he could hardly have ignored the universal health care plan he shepherded through the Legislature. It’s his pride and joy, so he had to mention it at least in passing.

So that’s what he did.

And he no doubt irritated – perhaps even infuriated – liberals (who infuriate rather easily) by repeating his mantra that “Vermont’s problem is not that our taxes are not high enough; it is that our taxes are too high,” and pledging his opposition to any increase in broad-based taxes.

But what could even the liberals expect? In all American history, governors who propose raising taxes in an election year are (a) a very rare breed; and (b) usually ex-governors by the end of the year.

Otherwise, the speech was almost 100 percent motherhood-and-apple-pie. More precisely, it was the current Vermont version of mother-and-apple-pie: Tropical Storm Irene. Roughly half the speech was directly or indirectly related to the storm, the flooding, and how the state reacted to it.

Which is pure politics.

Natural disasters are usually good for the political status of incumbent governors, even if they do nothing more than show up and seem to care. Shumlin spent days during and after the storm doing just that, and had that been all, he would have reaped a political benefit.

But that wasn’t all. In this case, the state government really did a good job, and without using those words, Shumlin made sure his speech recounted just how good a job it was. He talked of rebuilding “over 500 miles of damaged roads and 34 bridges in four months for a fraction of normal cost,” of the cooperation among state agencies, towns, and contractors, of how Vermonters “united as one community to overcome tragedy.”

A lot of the credit for Vermont’s impressive recovery from the storm and the flooding should go to the rank-and-file state workers who did the actual work on the ground – the engineers, the drivers of the earth-moving machinery, the supervisors who gave them their assignments. It’s entirely possible that had Irene hit a year earlier when Jim Douglas was governor, or had Brian Dubie won the 2010 election, those workers and supervisors might have performed just as well.

But that’s not what happened. Irene hit on Shumlin’s watch and his administration was up to the challenge. Somebody – Shumlin himself, Administration Secretary Jeb Spaulding, it really doesn’t matter who – understood that state government had to be more nimble and agile than state governments often are. They broke through the usual bureaucratic separation of functions by agency – the “silos” to use the latest government jargon – and got those agencies to cooperate rather than jealously guard their spheres of influence.

The reason all this is politically important is that the only way to defeat an incumbent governor in this state – especially an incumbent Democrat – is to convince the voters in the middle of the spectrum that the incumbent is not up to the job.

By definition, these middle-of-the-road voters are neither self-identified Republicans nor Democrats, neither self-styled liberals nor conservatives. It isn’t that they don’t care about policy, but they are more concerned with a governor’s performance. Faced with a major crisis, this governor and his top appointees performed well.

Peter Shumlin pauses while entering the House Chambers to hug Sally Garafano, whose husband Michael died while checking a Rutland City water supply inlet during Hurricane Irene. VTD/Josh Larkin

Peter Shumlin pauses while entering the House Chambers to hug Sally Garafano, whose husband Michael died while checking a Rutland City water supply inlet during Hurricane Irene. VTD/Josh Larkin

The result does not quite make Shumlin unbeatable this November. It does make him an even heavier favorite than he would otherwise have been. The Republican who will run against him, Sen. Randy Brock of St. Albans, appears to know that. Asked by a TV reporter what kind of job Shumlin did on Irene, Brock said that it was “a fine job.” When the reporter suggested that “fine” was not a ringing endorsement, Brock would not take the bait. He repeated that Shumlin’s performance was “fine.” Brock obviously knows he will have to find something else to criticize Shumlin about this fall.

Having recounted the state’s post-storm success, Shumlin could then proceed to another “non-political” subject which is great politics: He told Vermonters how wonderful they are.

This is, he said, “the greatest state in the nation,” with “the best congressional delegation in America.”

These are, of course, debatable propositions, debates that have to start with defining the standards of “greatest” and “best.” A person who loves broad prairies, hot weather, or teeming cities might disagree with the first proposition. A political conservative would certainly argue with the second.

No matter. Everybody likes to be praised, and everybody is inclined to like the person who praised him or her. Voters – again, especially those non-ideological voters in the middle of the spectrum – are more likely to have positive feelings for the politician who extols them. Besides, a candiate could do worse this year than align himself with Sen. Bernie Sanders, who seems likely to crush any opponent this November, should anyone have the gumption to oppose him.

And as with bragging on his administration’s post-Irene accomplishments, Shumlin had a legitimate case when he praised Vermonters. They really did rise to the occasion after Irene.

Toward the end of his speech, Shumlin sort of made another specific proposal. More accurately, he said he would be coming forth with a proposal to deal with the problem of the abuse of prescription drugs. Details – some of which might be controversial – will come later.

Details about everything will come later – the budget, school financing, health care, relocating all those state employees who worked in Waterbury, and more. For now, Shumlin was satisfied to pronounce the state of the state as “strong, Vermont strong.”

A great political slogan in a non-political speech.

Jon Margolis

Comments

  1. Bruce Post :

    I wonder if they give Pulitzer Prizes for web-based journalism sites? Well, if they did, I think that Jon Margolis could be well on his way to a nomination for his willingness to examine and, when appropriate, puncture the myth of Vermont exceptionalism. His earlier VT Digger piece on Peter Shumlin’s use of the flood as a vehicle to proclaim “how great we art” was the first piece in assembling this analysis; this posting today is his second.

    Having contributed speechifying bits and pieces to politicians over the years, I have my own antennae always on for a good speech. But, I am less impressed with cadence and imagery than I am with substance, which is relatively rare.

    Former Nixon speechwriter William Gavin just wrote his memoir “Speechwright: An Insider’s Take on Political Rhetoric.” One review highlighted this:

    ““The desire to be inspired,” Gavin writes in “Speechwright,” “to be uplifted, to be made to feel deeply, to be swept away, and thrilled is the mark of jaded citizens who have forgotten that the major goal of political rhetoric should be to make good arguments, clearly and honestly.”

    Against this backdrop, I considered Governor Shumlin’s speech, and what jumped out at me was his appropriation of the theme “I Am Vermont Strong.” It is hauntingly evocative of the U.S. Army’s recruitment slogan and marketing: “I Am Army Strong.”

    Of course, there are two Vermont Strongs. The first is http://www.iamvermontstrong.com/, which is designed to raise funds for flood relief. Yet, when you go here http://vtstrong.vermont.gov/, you get the impression the state government’s version is a studied effort long in the making, one that perhaps is the framework for Peter Shumlin’s reelection campaign. As Rahm Emmanuel, a Chicagoan as Jon once was, said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” And, before I get accused being partisan, it is also something Karl Rove and George Bush knew not to waste as well.

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