by Hamilton E. Davis
Governor Peter Shumlin presided over a political train wreck last Tuesday, barely beating a political amateur who ran a comically bad campaign, and having to watch his party lose seats in both the Vermont House and Senate. His performance drained what little momentum was left behind his signature single payer health reform initiative; its most lasting consequence might be that he has revived a moribund Republican party in the state.
At this writing, it is not even fully clear that Shumlin actually won. He leads Scott Milne by just a few thousand votes, roughly one percentage point, so the final tally won’t be available for a few more days. Shumlin is still virtually certain to win, but that fact can’t blunt the breadth and width of the political spanking that Shumlin has taken, one of the most striking in recent state political history.
When the governor finally took stage at the Hilton in the dying hours of election night, his opening comment neatly captured the political style that has been weighing increasingly on his governorship. “We all knew this was going to be a close election,” he said. That statement was pure Vermont fertilizer. Nobody had the faintest idea the election would go the way it did, including Shumlin himself.
By mid evening at the Hilton, as the results reached a third or so of the total, the ballroom was enveloped in a blanket of shock and depression. The crowd had its usual complement: a 150 or so politicians from the Congressional delegation, Leahy, Sanders and Welch to state representatives, the political press, lobbyists and political operatives—political junkies of all stripes. Most had been in many other ballrooms and they knew exactly what had happened, so they were stunned and depressed, the usual political gabble muted. Many drifted away early.
And the shock was still palpable Wednesday. There was some spinning, but most of the political class was still just trying to figure it out. Some said it was the very low turnout; there would obviously far more Democratic voters in a presidential year. True, but how did you explain how Congressman Peter Welch got 30,000 or so more votes than Shumlin? Some thought it was that he had angered the teachers union by his comments on the South Burlington strike. Others looked to the Republican claim in the closing days that Shumlin was trying to “take over” Medicare spending so that seniors would lose their benefits and their doctors. And what about the way he bought that property from his neighbor…
As to the effect of the vote going forward, much of the speculation was overwrought. Shumlin’s career is over, according to one of the wise men. He can’t win a fourth term in 2016. Maybe he won’t even want another term, said another. Health care reform is obviously dead; the central issues will be come property tax issues and education restructuring.
By Thanksgiving, the outer reaches of the Shumlin political angst will have receded. Reality will begin to take precedence. For one thing, Shumlin is far from dead. He remains—by far—the most capable political leader in the state. It is true that if he ran next week against a serious Republican opponent he probably would lose. There won’t be another election for two years, however, and even in little Vermont two years is plenty of time to turn things around. Beyond that, the fact that Shumlin has revived the Republican party, doesn’t mean that he has given the GOP any better candidates, and even more important, he hasn’t given the ones they have any good ideas.
As for health care reform, the single most important issue ever to face the state and a long time principal concern to the author, not only is health care reform not dead—it is strikingly healthy and it is going to remain healthy for many years to come. That is true even if the legislature refuses to even consider enacting whatever bill the governor drops on them in January. It would be true even if Shumlin ends up losing to Milne. (One of the most encouraging auguries in the campaign was the refusal of serious Republicans like Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, and even Milne himself, to join in the Vermont’s yahoo, tea-party right wing campaign to junk health care reform.)
The reason for this claim is the regulatory and other powers embedded in state law already, along with the presence of a thriving accountable care organization that includes the bulk of the state's medical care provider. Together, they can advance the essence of health care reform, no matter what happens politically. We will elaborate on this contention in the lead-up to the legislative session in January. But there is an important caveat to what some may see as an overly optimistic view. It is this:
Peter Shumlin has to dramatically change his game by the first of the year. If he does not do so, then he is likely to succumb to an at least marginally competent opponent in 2016; and he will slip away into political history, a mere echo of unfulfilled promise. What does that mean?
Major executive branch politicians have to have two types of skill. One is political, they need that to gain the office. But then they need bring to bear management skills. They need to get serious about how you get things done. As small as Vermont is, it is still a multi-billion dollar operation and it takes a competent CEO to run it.
Signs of the deterioration in Shumlin’s performance in both realms have been growing for at least a year and a half. First, the political.
A politician must communicate with the public, and a major, if not the major, channel for that is the press. Over time, Shumlin has become more and more remote. He is the most distant governor of the modern era. Howard Dean served six terms as governor—if a reporter called Dean at his house at 10 oclock at night,(his number was in the book) Howard would answer the call himself, he would cheerfully answer all the questions, and he would never lie. Reporters never had trouble reaching Madeleine Kunin, or Dick Snelling or Jim Douglas.
The process of getting through to Pete Shumlin runs closer to gum surgery. He wants no part of talking to the press, even though he can be very good at it. And his press apparatus reflects that bias. Shumlin’s press operation has treated the press as the enemy, and when a politician treats the press as an enemy, the press becomes an enemy. Right now, the Vermont press, to a very considerable extent, has a very sour view of Pete Shumlin. That has to change. Right now, by, say, tomorrow at the latest. In the matter of health care reform, neither the public nor the legislature has the faintest idea what Shumlin’s initiative portends, and he has done virtually nothing to bring them along. He pretty much ignored the issue in the fall campaign. Coupled with the mess surrounding the Exchange that omission can only amplify the difficulty of selling his plan in January.
As for managing, Shumlin’s performance has also been deeply flawed. He has to a far too great a degree, treated statesmanship as a political game. Solve problems by slick political maneuver. It worked for him when he ran the Senate., It won’t work anymore. The damage flowing from that posture is unmistakable. When he took office in 2011, he named his opponents in the Democratic primary to major jobs in his administration, an obvious play on the same policy carried out by President Abraham Lincoln, as described in the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin (Team of Rivals) Not necessarily a bad idea, but it was all about political resonance.
The problem came when he turned over his most important bureaucracy, the Agency of Human Services, over to Doug Racine, and installed as his most important deputy Mark Larson. Racine and Larson were good guys, and were good at policy. Both had excellent records, Larson in the House and Racine in the Senate. But the jobs they got required strong skills in the management of complex operations; and neither Racine nor Larson had the operational experience to run a Jiffy Lube.
So when Shumlin turned over the establishment of the Obamacare Exchange to AHS, the result was chaos, and then failure. Shumlin eventually turned the problem over Lawrence Miller, his Secretary of Commerce and Development, and Miller began to impose order on it. But that move came more than a year later than it should have and the whole, unnecessary blunder has left health care reform in a mess.
Back to the political dimension for a moment: There is no reliable way to tease out the roots of the vote on Tuesday, and it may be my particular bias toward health care reform, but I continue to believe the kerfuffle over the “take over” of Medicare had a measureable impact on the vote. At a minimum, it demonstrated the deleterious effect of Shumlin’s penchant for secrecy and his failure to be candid with the public on a critical element of health care reform.
The details of that issue are too complex to go into here (I will assess that issue in the next few days) but what was clear is that Shumlin never made any effort to explain to the public what was going on with Medicare as an element in his single payer planning; so that when the Republicans began making the entirely dishonest claim that he wanted to steal seniors’ Medicare money to fund his nefarious single payer scam the administration had no quick answer.
Any delay on an issue like that is fatal. In fact, reporters who cover state government should have blown the Medicare canard out of the water. But how were they to understand it? There are dozens of hideously complex issues tied up in health care reform. And Shumlin has never said as much as a syllable about most of them. So—the press flounders, the public and the legislators are at sea, and Shumlin is just letting the whole mess drift.
The conclusion: Shumlin can right his own ship. He can win future elections, if he wants to. And by navigating the state toward successful health care reform he can eclipse the performance of any governor in the state’s history, including giants like Phil Hoff and Deane Davis.
But he has to bring up his game, and bring it up fast. We won’t have to wait long to see whether he does.
January at the latest.