The following is not based on inside sources or secret documents; it’s just me, interpreting current events and connecting a bunch of dots that appear to be related. Take it for what it’s worth.
As lawmakers reconvene in Montpelier, our political media fill themselves with coverage of Governor Shumlin’s Very Big Day and the opening rounds of legislative action. Meanwhile, the real important stuff has been happening elsewhere, without any bright lights, cameras or microphones. What might that be?
The Governor (and other top Dems) carrying out a grand strategy to permanently co-opt the political center, thus marginalizing the Republican Party on the right, and the Progs and liberal Dems on the left. Whether or not there’s an actual deal or just an unspoken accord, it looks like this: Business interests and mainstream conservatives allow Shumlin to pursue single-payer health care, and in return, he steers a centrist course on other issues — keeping a lid on the (small-P) progressive aspirations of the left.
I have a bunch of items to get to, but I’ll start with the unspoken but very obvious dance between Shumlin and our buddy Bruce Lisman. Three unmistakable signs:
1. Shumlin’s apparent 180-degree spinaroonie on ethics reform. Peter “Mr. Microphone” Hirschfeld’s initial report for VPR included the following passage:
Gov. Peter Shumlin voluntarily disclosed the kind of information being sought by Lisman and Gilbert during his first two gubernatorial campaigns. He says he supports the move to make the disclosures mandatory.
“It’s just important for the public to know, when you’re going to be the chief executive of the state or frankly be involved in making laws for a state what assets you have and what conflicts you might have,” the governor said.
Emphasis mine. I don’t think Hirschfeld realized it, but he got something of a scoop there. Until now, Shumlin’s been an opponent of ethics reform, especially in the case of state legislators. (In case the highlighted quote above wasn’t clear enough, Paul “The Huntsman” Heintz now reports that Shumlin would require financial disclosure for “all elected officials serving in Montpelier.” Now, let’s spin the clock back to November 2012:
Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, who frequently talks about his commitment to transparency, says the voluntary disclosure system works well for statewide candidates, and it wouldn’t be “fair” to require lawmakers to disclose financial information.
And back in 2009, Shumlin told then-ink-stained wretch Peter Hirschfeld that “Vermont has proven immune to the kind of seedy lawmaking that might make financial disclosure laws necessary in other states.”
Hmm. Looks like the Governor has changed his tune. In fact, he’s now singing harmony on Bruce Lisman’s favorite song.
2. The curious incident of the dog in the night-time. In this case, the dog that didn’t bark is Bruce Lisman.
He’s all in favor of transparency and accountability, right? He’s big on government efficiency, right? And what’s been the number-one issue of the last several months regarding transparency, accountability, and efficiency? The troubled rollout of Vermont Health Connect. Republicans have been all over Shumlin’s case on this, and they plan to continue as long as they possibly can.
Well, as far as I can tell, Lisman hasn’t uttered a single word about VHC. Curious, isn’t it?
3. Lisman’s latest opinion piece, praising the Governor for his “focus on jobs and prosperity.” And, naturally, trying to hog all the credit for anyone who talks about economic growth — “it’s been our focus for the past two years.” Yeah, Bruce, and before you came along, nobody had ever thought of the issue before. Insufferable.
But the point is, Lisman praising the Governor. Remember the expensive and unavoidable launch phase of Campaign for Vermont, and its ceaseless railing against the powers in Montpelier? Well, now Lisman is making nice. Granted, he does it in the context of pushing his own agenda; but it’s a stark change in tone.
I don’t think this means Bruce Lisman is a rising star. What I do think is that he’s politically useful to Shumlin: Lisman spends his money pushing a centrist agenda, and thus provides a counterweight to the braying dead-enders in the VTGOP as well as the liberals who want to use the Dems’ political power to shift Vermont substantially leftward.
All right, so there’s my case for A Secret Love between Gov. Shumlin and Vermont’s own Wall Street baron. Now, on to other exhibits in my case for a top-down centrist freeze.
— Previously cited in this space, the Governor’s fundraising prowess among Republicans and business leaders, as documented last month by Mr. Heintz. Including the quid pro quo as overtly stated by Barre Mayor (and Shumlin donor) Thom Lauzon: “We don’t want to see broad-based taxes increased. The Governor has probably led that charge as well as any other governor has.”
It’d be instructive, not to mention a public service, if some political reporter who actually draws a salary would take the time to examine Brian Dubie’s 2010 donor list and compare it with the 2012 lists for Shumlin and Randy Brock. I bet a lot of folks crossed over, and I bet that’s the primary reason that Brock’s fundraising efforts tanked so badly.
— The apparent closed-door deal on campaign finance law, which will immediately benefit Governor Shumlin, and will in the future benefit any candidate occupying the political center. As first reported by, oh God, Paul Heintz again, the emerging bill “is so watered down that the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, which has spent years fighting for such a bill, has already vowed to oppose it.”
The bill would double the ceiling on donations to a single statewide candidate from individuals, corporations and PACs from $2,000 to $4,000. There’s only one guy who has a significant number of maxed-out donors under the current law, and that’s Peter Shumlin. If this bill passes, his overwhelming financial advantage will grow even larger.
— Finally, some old news, but freshly pertinent in this context. While there are more than a few fire-breathers in the Dem and Prog caucuses, the House and Senate leadership is reliably moderate. Shap Smith is a self-described moderate, and John Campbell obviously is. Indeed, I suspect that the main reason Campbell is still Senate President Pro Tem in spite of his disastrous 2012 session is that he keeps a lid on any potential lefty outbreaks under the Golden Dome. Not for nothing have I called him “Shumlin’s doorstop.”
And don’t forget that the 2012 challenge to his leadership, in the person of Sen. Ann Cummings, quickly dissolved after initially being seen as a huge threat to Campbell. I suspect some arms got twisted there.
Conclusion, finally. It looks to me like the Governor and his allies are moving to cement the Dems’ control of the center — which means cementing relationships (and forging compromises) with centrist Republicans, business groups, and deep-pocketed donors who are fiscally conservative but socially moderate.
This may be a sound political strategy; if it works, the Republicans will be marginalized for a long, long time. But it’s a disappointment to people like me who see Republican Governors like Rick Snyder, John Kasich, Tom Corbett, Scott Walker, and (until recently) Bob McDonnell resolutely push their states rightward, while we Vermonters settle for health care reform and not much else.
Health care reform’s a big deal, to be sure. And if Shumlin does manage to get us to single-payer, his administration will have been an overall success and his legacy will be assured. But it’s hard not to wish for more, given the Dems’ political dominance. And the party’s elected leaders are choosing to follow the safe road.