As the pendulum swings
Scott Milne launched his candidacy for governor last week, anticipating, or hoping, that the usual pendulum swing of Vermont politics will swing his way.
He was firm in his call for “balance” and what he described as “cautious, understated optimism.” He was also unsparing in his critique of the incumbent Democrat, Peter Shumlin, for his “ultra-progressive agenda” and his “need for exuberance and rapid, radical change.” He said he would not vilify Shumlin, but he did not hesitate to criticize the spirit of experimentation and “the bubble of his rhetoric,” which he said must be deflated.
Former Gov. James Douglas stood with Milne at his campaign kickoff, representing the kind of politics that Milne aspires to practice should he be elected. As governor, Douglas shunned risk and experimentation, practicing a steady, unflashy and cautious style of politics that Vermonters liked and respected. And yet Vermonters veered in a different direction after Douglas’ four terms. In electing Shumlin, they showed they were hungry for experimentation and even risk. The change in attitude reflects the pendulum swing that seems like a regular feature of politics in Vermont.
After all, Douglas was first elected after the 11-year tenure of Gov. Howard Dean. Dean was both a cautious manager and a restless experimenter. He pushed for health care reform, and he oversaw major, disruptive changes in education finance and issues of gay rights.
After four or five terms in office, voters tend to become fatigued with any governor, and in Douglas’s case, he was fortunate that the pendulum was swinging away from the more activist style of Dean toward the cautious style of Douglas. Dean came to office in 1991 after the death of Gov. Richard Snelling, who himself had been elected in 1990 following the pioneering six-year tenure of Gov. Madeleine Kunin. Fiscal problems and recession at the end of Kunin’s third term prompted voters to turn to Snelling, who in four previous terms had established a reputation for sound fiscal management.
Shumlin’s exuberance and experimentation could eventually wear thin, especially if some of his experiments falter. But his major experiment — single-payer health care — has yet to get off the ground. In electing Shumlin, voters knew they were embarking on an unprecedented new venture, with risks and the possibility of failure. But even if there are advantages to the cautious, Douglas-style approach to politics, when the pendulum swings the other way, it is because voters perceive major problems that have not been satisfactorily addressed through piecemeal gestures.
Sometimes bold, unprecedented action is needed, and that is what is happening with health care. It didn’t happen under Governor Dean or Governor Douglas. But the stratospheric costs of health care and the cruel and capricious way that people receive or do not receive care have demanded action.
Vermonters bought into Shumlin’s experiment, and the legislators they elected have been mostly supportive. It would be surprising indeed if the voters were to halt the pendulum in mid-swing, agreeing with Milne that it was all a mistake.
The other area where Shumlin has sought to be a pioneer has been on energy, but efforts to promote major energy conservation efforts have stumbled for lack of funding. So has his effort to clean up Lake Champlain.
Republicans have sounded warnings that the wheels will soon come off of the state’s fiscal management, but so far Shumlin has kept the wagon rolling ahead. In two or four years, if budget problems arise or if single-payer health care fails to get off the ground, then a major pendulum swing in the other direction may be inevitable.
Milne and fellow Republicans find themselves in the opposition, which means that their chief purpose in the minority is to keep watch, sound warnings and hold the majority to account. As long as the majority of voters remain committed to what Milne characterized as “rapid, radical change,” that is all the opposition can do. If the Democrats succeed in setting up a first-in-the-nation single-payer system, if the system works, if the budget remains in balance, if no other problems crop up, then the Republicans are likely to remain in the minority for the foreseeable future.
It seldom happens that way. Pendulums swing for a reason: people are fallible and things go wrong. Eventually, the honeymoon and even the marriage grow tiresome, and the conservative will seem like the agent of change. Maybe not this year, but sometime.