Two weeks to go
Voters often say that they find politics an irritating exercise in name-calling and partisanship and that they can’t wait for it all to be over. But as the election season enters its final two weeks, the battle is becoming more intense and, voter complaints notwithstanding, more interesting.
Gov. Peter Shumlin and his Republican challenger, Randy Brock, held their final televised debate last week, and they lit into each other with criticism and ridicule. Voters need not be offended; nor do they need to worry that the candidates’ feelings will be hurt. The heightened pitch of the rhetoric trains a revealing spotlight on some of the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates.
Shumlin leaped all over Brock for his proposal to create what Brock is calling a “business in a box” — a prepackaged business plan that unemployed Vermonters can take to a bank in order to seek financing for a new business venture. “What unemployed Vermonter has the resources to be eligible for credit from a lending institution?” Shumlin said. “What do you know about business that I don’t know that you’re able to get a loan when you’re unemployed?”
Providing economic development information to Vermonters interested in starting a business would seem like a good idea, but Brock’s proposal for a “business in a box” suffers from its simplicity. It is easily mockable because it reduces a complicated problem to what sounds like a gimmick. And Shumlin is not shy about using mockery to his advantage. Voters can decide whether it is warranted.
Brock came at Shumlin over the governor’s private land dealings in which, together with friends, Shumlin arranged to buy property in East Montpelier at a favorable price. Brock needled Shumlin on the issue, saying, “On a per-acre basis you got a heck of a deal. If you can do that, you ought to be doing that for the state of Vermont, because you’re a heck of a real estate investor.”
Shumlin made himself vulnerable on the issue of his land dealings because of the touchiness of his response when initially questioned by the press. If there is nothing wrong, why get upset? The wheeling and dealing, like the business in a box, is easily mockable, and it is interesting to observe how the candidates respond when pressed.
When elections get lively, they can spin out of the control of the candidate, which can be a good thing. Wendy Wilton, Republican candidate for treasurer, has made her race lively through an aggressive campaign, but the race has not always gone according to plan. After Treasurer Beth Pearce acknowledged publicly that she rents her home rather than owning a home, Wilton said Pearce’s decision suggested a lack of commitment to Vermont and her community. Wilton’s remarks were widely criticized. They were insulting to renters and patronizing to Pearce. Later Wilton tried to downplay the issue and “move on,” distancing herself from her own remarks. But the exchange was revealing in several ways. It showcased Wilton’s political aggressiveness, and it elicited from Pearce an expression of heartfelt commitment to Vermont.
These exchanges may be silly from one point of view. They do not involve the complex issues of the day — the nettlesome questions of taxes, budgets, health care, poverty that are the grist of politics. But they offer revealing glimpses into the people striving to become our leaders.
In Vermont voters are close enough to the candidates they can fit their personal assessments together with their assessment of the issues. At the national level, politics tends to be distilled through the language of advertising, debate quips, conventional wisdom and a hard-to-define sense of momentum. Seeing through the fog of rhetoric is not so easy, though the rhetoric can be entertaining.
President Obama’s latest zinger came on Friday when he described Mitt Romney’s tendency to forget his previous positions on a long list of issues as resulting from a case of “Romnesia.” A quip of that sort will have a telling effect if it touches on a concern that has actually lodged itself in the minds of the voters.
The Vermont governor’s race has not had the intensity of the presidential race because all indications suggest it is not nearly as close. Brock has struggled against Shumlin’s advantages as an incumbent who built up significant good will in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene. Further, he has had a hard time deflecting the momentum of Shumlin’s health care innovations.
But the last two weeks of the campaign can provide surprises both entertaining and enlightening. Voters may complain, but they will be watching.