The pendulum swings
If you believe the pendulum theory of politics, you would conclude that in Vermont the pendulum has swung well to the left. But if you believe the theory, you know it won’t always stay there.
Republicans were stung by their resounding election defeats this year, which shrank their already meager representation in the Legislature and in the executive branch. Republican leaders understand it will be a long road back to power, particularly in a period when the national Republican Party has become something of an embarrassment for Vermont Republicans.
The danger for parties in power when the pendulum swings decisively their way is that overconfidence and complacency begin to take their toll. The role of the opposition party is to be ready to offer a course correction when the majority party begins to stumble.
It was notable that during the recently concluded campaign Randy Brock, the GOP candidate for governor, offered what might be thought of as a Jim Douglas-style critique of the program of Gov. Peter Shumlin. On health care, he favored a market approach to health coverage, expressing extreme skepticism about single-payer health care. On energy, he criticized Shumlin’s embrace of mountaintop wind turbines, a view that echoed that of Douglas when he was governor.
The danger for Democrats will come if the numbers begin not to add up. Health care is still a work in progress, with the prospect of a full-fledged single-payer system pushed back until 2017 at the earliest. In the meantime, the state is establishing a health care exchange that will allow Vermonters to sign up for health care coverage if they cannot find it elsewhere but are facing the federal mandate to purchase insurance.
Shumlin’s health care plan is founded on the findings of the report produced in 2011 by Dr. William Hsiao, the Harvard health economist who argued that a public system would achieve huge cost savings through the reduction of red tape associated with the private insurance system. His report was well-documented and authoritative. It provided a sound basis for proceeding, but we aren’t sure yet that it will all work out as planned. Certainly, Brock expressed his doubts. The role of the opposition party is to keep a vigilant eye on these undertakings and to let us know when trouble starts.
Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is the last Republican standing in the executive branch and the leading Republican spokesman following the election. He has said that he is not convinced by the Shumlin health care plan. He has assumed the role of official skeptic, telling Shumlin that if he wants to win broad support among Vermonters for health care reform, he needs to be able to persuade Scott that it will work. Scott conceives of himself as a stand-in for ordinary Vermonters, and that is a useful role for him to play.
The pendulum begins to swing back when the party in power runs out of energy or has trouble defending its signature programs. Gov. Howard Dean served for 11 years — from 1991 to 2003 — and he was a popular, energetic, activist governor. But after a time Vermonters believed they had to take a more cautious approach, and they elected Jim Douglas to four successive terms. Douglas remained a popular governor, but after eight years there was an eagerness to try something new — in health care and energy, in particular — and Vermonters elected Shumlin.
The national Republican Party has not provided a stellar example for how a minority ought to behave. Its obstructionism and increasingly strident radicalism during President Obama’s first term yielded a sharp rebuke from voters this year.
Scott’s approach will leave the Vermont Republican Party in better shape to contribute when the pendulum swings back. Scott is respectful and cooperative in relation to the Shumlin administration and Legislature, but he remains apart from the Democratic majority, providing a critical eye that could prove useful in the coming years. The Douglas point of view prevailed during the Douglas years, but it was not persuasive in the Shumlin years when advanced by Brock. Eventually, the Douglas view, or some variation of it, will have something to say as, inevitably, times change.
For the Republicans patience and respectfulness will stand them in good stead, helping them make a positive contribution when their time comes again.