Shumlin Redux

by Hamilton E. Davis

    It’s often said that politics is a contact sport. It is also often said that when athletes get knocked down, they get up. Pete Shumlin is trying to get up now. It isn’t easy.
    On election day last month, Governor Shumlin got absolutely flattened, by far the worst beating he has taken in his political life. Technically speaking, he won-but by a tiny margin. In a very real political sense he actually lost; the total vote for the Republican, Scott Milne, and the Libertarian Dan Feliciano, exceeded Shumlin’s total.
   Because Shumlin got less than 50 percent of the vote, it will be up to legislature to pick the winner. It will be Shumlin; but that should be scant comfort to him. He knows, better than anyone else, that the vote amounted to a rejection of him personally, not of his administration or his policies, but him personally.
    So, what does he do now?
     His first response was to embrace humility, saying that the voters have spoken and he will listen. He is holding more press conferences, which is a good thing. But humility doesn’t solve policy problems, and humility isn’t leadership, which is what Vermonters elected him for.
    And the policy landscape is an absolute minefield: the state budget is diving into deep deficit; there is a developing wrangle over education policy and property taxes; and, most difficult by far, Shumlin will bring his signature single payer health reform package to the legislature in January.
    Moreover, in a way that is rare in Vermont, partisan politics will be inextricably tied up with the policy arena. The first decision that Shumlin has to make-- and make really quickly--is that he will run again; he can’t wait for a year, or a year and a half to decide. If he leaves the slightest doubt that he might not run, then single payer will slide into political limbo. The major players in both major parties will begin to parse everything they do in terms of the succession questions. Indeed, the governor will lose political leverage on whatever issues come up. 
    In the first week or two after the election, some of the people who know Shumlin best were sure that he would not run in 2016. He doesn’t have the stomach for it, ran a common refrain. That may have had as much to do with the shock experienced by Shumlin supporters than it was the case for the governor himself, and in any event, the he-won’t-run sentiment appears to be fading.
    A more important question, however, is not fading: Can he win in 2016?
    Not everyone thinks it is an issue. This election was a complete fluke, the argument runs. The turnout was very low, there were no major Democratic races to generate involvement of the voters. That will change in 2016—it will be a presidential year, all those hold-out Democratic voters will come back and since Vermont is famously a blue state, more than enough of them will vote for Shumlin.
    That could turn out to be true, but in my view there really is no such thing as a meaningless election. Some can signify more than others, and they may be difficult to interpret, but none is irrelevant. In this case, it seems to me, an important outcome is that the Shumlin spell has been broken.
    Ever since he began his rise as a leader in the Vermont Senate he has been an unusual political player. He has never been loved and often has not been trusted. But he was always recognized as very politically astute and after his very decisive reelection in 2012, he seemed, well, inevitable. Too smart, too clever, too well financed to be dislodged in blue, blue Vermont. That magic is gone.
     It emphatically does not mean, however, that Shumlin can’t win in 2016. It is true that Shumlin has invited a serious Republican into the race. But it isn’t clear that the Republicans can find one. And even if they do, it isn’t clear that he or she would produce a serious policy agenda for Vermonters to consider. Virtually the entire Republican agenda consists in a plea to dump Shumlin—it’s very hard to win a purely negative campaign.
    Still, the fact remains that Shumlin is in a deep political hole and he needs to find a way to reestablish himself as the dominant political leader in the state. He did so in the past on the strength of two liberal planks—single payer health care and closing Vermont Yankee—reinforced by his bravura performance in the wake of Hurricane Irene.
    The only one of those elements still in place is single payer and it is hard to overstate how problematical that is right now. The Obamacare insurance exchange still doesn’t fully work, and Shumlin has to take the blame for that. His single-payer financing plan, which is scheduled for launch at the end of December, started leaking out last week and probably can’t be reeled back in, which means that Shumlin has lost control of the narrative around the single most troublesome element of his plan. (more about that soon)
   The underlying question for Shumlin going forward is whether he can shift his style from political maneuver, one deal at a time, to operational management. For example, Shumlin has been delaying and ducking and dodging on his financing plan for at least three years, all in the service of making sure that it couldn’t be used by his political opponents or that the public wouldn’t fault him for it.
    There isn’t any place left to hide now, and Shumlin is going to have to defend a massively complex plan in a bitterly contentious environment. He is almost certain to suffer very serious setbacks on the plan’s particulars. The more important question, however, is how he handles it.
    He has to open the whole issue up to the public as well as the legislature and then persuade Vermonters of the virtues of his vision. In other words, the best political strategy at this point is to demonstrate that he can manage a complex structure competently.
    Can he do that? He has done it in the past: the reform design team he put on the field in 2011 was a very good one, the plan embodied in the single payer legislation enacted in 2011 was superb. The management of the issue since then has ranged somewhere from good—the Green Mountain Care Board is first rate—to awful; the exchange, and the overall management of the financing issue have cost the single payer plan virtually all its political momentum.
    In 2010, Shumlin won his first election by just a few thousand votes, so it made sense to delay any talk about money until after the 2012 election. But Shumlin won that one big, against a strong opponent: Republican state senator Randy Brock got just 38 percent of the vote in 2012. The result left Shumlin with plenty of political capital.
    But he then completely wasted two years, 2013 and 2014, leaving his Republican opponents to keep chipping away at public confidence in the single payer idea. In the recent campaign, he scarcely mentioned health care reform from Labor Day on. There was no deal to be made, so Shumlin said nothing. It is that style that has to change.
    So, the next two months will be the biggest political test of Shumlin’s life. My own feeling is that he can pass it, that he is at bottom a good political athlete. But he has to change his approach. And he has to get up, really fast.