Editor’s note: Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political analyst.
Not exactly the way it intended, Vermont Public Television performed a valuable public service in its debate among the five candidates for governor of Vermont last night.
Yes, that said, “among” and “five,” as opposed to “between” and “two,” as the race is usually described. The “two,” obviously, are Democratic incumbent Gov. Peter Shumlin and his Republican opponent, Sen. Randy Brock of St. Albans.
At the Vermont Public TV studio, though, these two (the only two wearing a suit and tie) were the bookends, not the entire cast. Between Brock on the left (of your screen, not the ideological spectrum) and Shumlin on the right were three other contenders invited for the most sensible reason – they all qualified to get their names on the ballot.
In theory, then, they are the equals of Brock and Shumlin. Putting them all on the panel was no doubt the way Vermont Public TV did intend to perform a valuable public service, even though including the three also-rans threatened to – and most likely did – diminish the size of the audience.
In reality, though, the other three are not the equals of the major party candidates. Well, as human beings, they are. But not as candidates, and not only because Dave Eagle of the Liberty Union Party, Cris Ericson of the U.S. Marijuana Party, and independent Emily Peyton are unlikely to get five percent of the vote among the them.
It’s also that they don’t have very much to say, or if they do they don’t know how to say it. Neither do they seem to know much about government, politics, economics, or, from what could be gathered during the debate, much of anything else. The two women appeared to be unfocused, angry, and on some kind of personal quest. Eagle, full-bearded and dressed in a short-sleeved checked shirt, spoke in comprehensible, rational, and even grammatical sentences. But even he offered voters no coherent case for choosing him. Like the other two, he does not know how to be a candidate.
So no matter how many names are printed on the ballot, this is not a five-candidate race.
Segueing, as the TV folks say, to that valuable public service the debate inadvertently performed: On reflection, this isn’t a two-candidate race, either. It’s a one-candidate … well, “race,” wouldn’t be right word, would it? It’s a one-candidate waltz.
Reporters, including this one, have been reluctant to say this. First of all, the election is not until Nov. 6, and as political observers are (overly) fond of observing, “anything can happen.” A high-ranking official of the Shumlin administration could be caught embezzling from a fund designed to help handicapped children. The governor himself could be found walking down Montpelier’s State Street at 2 a.m. conversing with someone who is not there.
Or perhaps a comet … oh, well, this is now in the realm of the absurd. None of this will happen.
The other reason for the reluctance is that Randy Brock is neither irrational, inarticulate, ill-informed or marginal. He’s a former state auditor, a respected member of the state Senate, a successful businessman, and an energetic candidate. He is also, by all appearances and by the common consent of the office-holders, lobbyists and reporters who hang around the Statehouse, a decent, kind and affable fellow.
But he is not going to be elected governor, and at some point the reluctance to declare the race over has to give way to the fact that this race is over.
It was over before last night. It may have been over as early as August, when the Castleton Polling Institute Poll showed Shumlin ahead 62 to 25 percent. A lot can change in two months (or two days; check the latest presidential polling), but there are no signs that much has changed here. Shumlin has also raised much more money than Brock, and has support from more political organizations.
Brock has gotten some help from the new super PAC called Vermonters First, which has run commercials critical of Vermont Democrats and of Shumlin’s health care plans. But they aren’t very effective commercials. They lack restraint. Their alarmist tone is as likely to repel as to convince an undecided voter.
And for all his strengths, Brock may not know how to be a candidate, either, at least not in Vermont. That was evident Monday when Brock announced his economic plans, which included giving unemployed Vermonters a “business in a box,” which he described as “a homegrown, state-sponsored, state-assisted franchise opportunity for people who are unemployed.”
Using the “box,” Brock said, the unemployed could buy themselves a franchise.
The unemployed? Buy a franchise with what?
Brock’s basic appeal is ideological. He explained that ideology in his closing remarks Thursday night, calling the election “a clear choice” between what he called Shumlin’s support for “centralized management,” and his view of a state where “people make their own decisions.”
Like any ideology, this one can be defended, and in some states it might be effective. But there is precious little evidence that in this state, where the economy is in better shape than it is in most of the other 49 and life – even in these hard times – is relatively pleasant, very many Vermonters to the left of “movement conservatives” worry that they are being centrally managed and unable to make their own decisions.
In Vermont, movement conservatives are a decided minority, and this campaign is over.