I’m not a big fan of Sunday morning talk shows. The national ones are tedious and repetitive, the same Washington insiders spouting the same conventional wisdom, even when they manage to go a week without John McCain’s bloviations. But I see that I missed something last Sunday: an appearance by Bruce Lisman on WCAX’s You Can’t Catch Me — er, I mean, You Can Quote Me. His presentation was designed to reposition his vanity proj — I mean, nonpartisan advocacy group, Campaign for Vermont. (One apparent casualty of the repositioning: the word “Prosperity,” which has sometimes been appended to CFV’s name.)
As far as I can tell, this was his first significant media appearance since former Douglas Administration stalwart Jason Gibbs came on board as CFV’s communications consultant. Looks like Jason recommended a new, more friendly, bipartisan face for the organization.
The interview included numerous claims of nonpartisanship and political centrism; an indirect admission that CFV made a mistake by introducing itself to Vermonters through a blitz of anti-Democratic radio ads; an acknowledgment that he’s spent “about $400,000” on CFV and hopes to start raising some money from other people in the new year; a hedged denial that he has any political ambitions; and lots and lots of long, ambling, unfocused answers delivered in a near-monotone. (Interviews are not the man’s strong suit.)
You want details? We got details…
Although CFV seems to have dropped the word “prosperity,” Lisman made it clear from the gitgo that his sole focus is on building “a diversified and dynamic economy” that can (somehow) create “more jobs than there are people.” I hope he didn’t really mean that; it’s an impossible goal.
Anyway, rebranding. Here’s how he sought to define CFV. (And I should warn you, reading extended Bruce Lisman quotes can lead to headaches, dizziness, nausea, and disorientation. The operation of heavy machinery while reading Bruce Lisman quotes is contraindicated.)
We’re trying to build this coalition of Vermonters regardless of political orientation, you know as long as it’s center left or center right, kind of fits the moderate definition, and we’re trying to engage in coalition in big ideas and think there’s more influence to be had and more power in nonpartisan than there is in being political.
Nice of him to admit that he’s seeking “influence” and “power” there. Gee, I thought he was just trying to elevate the terms of political discourse. Freudian slip?
As for how and why CFV got labeled as a conservative group, the finger of blame pointed ever outward:
Sometimes a new and different entity — I think we’re an advocacy group that wasn’t around for one issue, wasn’t around for one six-week period, but here it is a year plus, year and a half later, if you will, and we’re still rolling out our ideas and trying to influence, if you will, the course of discussion. I think faced with something new, people were quick to say, I might like their ideas, but I’d like to have it defined by their political orientation and I’ve said from the beginning, if you like our ideas, you don’t need any particular further definition. But I understand how things are and in particular, in the business of politics can get mean, so just labeling things does take place.
When you boil down all that prolixity, if you will, what you get, if you will, is “Campaign for Vermont is so new and different that you people didn’t get it.”
Really, Bruce, you came by your unwanted labeling the old-fashioned way: you earned it. You earned it through ads and position papers that almost exclusively hewed to a right-wing, free-market view of the world, while offering nothing but criticism for Vermont Democrats. It didn’t help that many of your early attacks were later employed by the Republicans during the campaign.
On CFV’s finances, the last we heard, Lisman had spent about $200,000 on that big initial ad blitz of last winter. Now he says he has spent “about $400,000.” Here’s how he explains his big political investment, which was second only to Miss Daisy, Lenore Broughton, herself:
What I said from the very, very beginning was that I would finance this enterprise because it’s different. I don’t — I didn’t know if it had been done before. I didn’t claim to know a lot about politics and know probably even less today, but I was learning about public policy and I wanted to be able to show people that we could grow an enterprise that would last, that had good value, and would gather support. And so — and that’s why I financed it, to show — I thought I should put my money where my brain was on this. Money to action, if you will. I’ve got a goal this year of making it sustainable, just to raise money from others, so it continues for a long time.
I tell you, you listen to Lisman talk, if you will, and you wonder, if you will, how in Hell he rose to the top of a Wall Street giant. But let’s again boil this down: He self-funded it because he didn’t know any other way to build an advocacy group. Not for this former Bear Stearns executive to beat a path through the grass roots and build a movement through the quality of ideas. Instead, he took the rich man’s route: buying himself a place in the public square.
What’s more, he pretty much admits that a lot of that money was wasted — indeed, was counterproductive. Darren Perron brought up CFV’s early radio blitz, which was harshly critical of the Democrats without calling them by name. The essence of Lisman’s response, stitched together out of his scattered replies: He said that in its first year, CFV “tended to be a little more reactive” than they plan to be from now on; he also claimed that there was only one ad directly slamming the Democrats, which is either an outright lie or massively misleading.
When pressed on whether 30-second attack ads are an appropriate means of “elevating discussion,” he replied, “I don’t think you will hear us offer that kind of ad this year, 2013.” When asked if the ads were a mistake, he said “No,” but then admitted that “What I’ve learned, learning as we go, 30 seconds or 60 seconds doesn’t allow you to explain the context for things.”
That’s about as close to “We screwed up” as you’re likely to hear from a guy who doesn’t think Wall Street did anything particularly wrong in the runup to the 2008 economic implosion.
Most of the second half of the interview was about education. And if you think the excerpts I’ve included above were scary, you ought to try to plow through his endless circumlocutions on education policy. Me, I’m gonna give it a pass.
Two more notes from the interview. First, he was asked about a possible run for office, and he issued the standard non-denial denial:
I don’t have a plan to run for office. I have a plan to keep Campaign for Vermont as a nonpartisan entity and through that, influence those who are in politics.
And when he was asked if that meant he’s never going to run for office, he again stopped short of an absolute denial: “Never plan to run.”
And toward the very end of the program, Lisman was asked about the proposed wind-energy moratorium. And he absolutely ducked the question:
There should be a really good discussion. One thing we said in our — we put out our energy piece, is — and I’ve said a couple of interviews and certainly experience, we’re in favor of renewables and we’re in favor of retaining the best of Vermont and regardless of what I say here, I wouldn’t be here unless I loved the state and you wouldn’t either. We choose to be here, mainly. Is there a reason to make it better, more interesting, all that? Of course. The issues around energy are quite complex, but to simplify it quickly, the state is very focused on electricity. It’s only 12 or 15 percent of the total energy package —
At which point he was interrupted, as time was almost up and the inquisitors tried one final time to get a straight answer. “Wind moratorium, where does Campaign for Vermont stand on that issue?”
I don’t know if we need a moratorium, but we need a discussion because electricity rates are the highest in the country and alternatives haven’t come on, and there are questions about transmission lines above 20%, so the answer is we need to consider how we’re introducing and how much we’re asking people who want afford it, how much they can spend.
Wow. This, from the person who wants to elevate our discourse. This poorly stated, incompetently veiled adherence to free-marketism. He may want you to believe that CFV is a mainstream, broad-based movement, but so far it remains entirely his creation. And for him, every issue is about money and business. He spent his career in the canyons of Wall Street, and it shows.