Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin and his Republican rival for the state's top job, Sen Randy Brock (R-Franklin), met for their second debate of the season Wednesday morning — and it was a feisty affair.
Hosted by WDEV-FM and moderated by Mark Johnson, the hour-long debate was held at the Red Hen Bakery in Middlesex. The candidates spent much of their time discussing what seems to be the defining issue of this race — their competing health care plans — but touched on a number of other topics as well, including industrial wind, the lottery, taxes, jobs and, um, pot.
1. In the debate over health care, both Shumlin and Brock appeal to fear. Remember the death panels? Remember how they utterly reshaped the federal health care reform debate in August 2009? That's because when it comes to health care, it's way easier to use fear tactics to trash the other guy's plan than it is to sell your own complicated scheme.
Shumlin hit the nail on the head when, in the midst of the health care discussion, he said to Brock, "You try to spread fear. I know that's your job in this campaign." Except Shumlin's doing the same thing himself. His go-to talking point on health care is that Brock's proposed changes to community rating — which currently prevents insurers from factoring in demographic information when setting premiums — will jack up health care costs for the old and the sick.
Shumlin: "Randy Brock is proposing that we moderate [community rating] or undo it. What that means is, in plain English, if you're sick, if you're older, if you have a pre-existing condition like breast cancer and you survived, your rates could go up two-to-three hundred percent under Randy's plan, which is a disaster for Vermonters that are struggling to pay for health insurance already."
More Shumlin: "He pointed out that he's talking about reforming community rating: charging younger people less and sick, older, disabled more. He said maybe not 3-1. Hey, turn to Vermonters today who are stuck with pre-existing conditions, struggling to pay for health insurance and tell them, 'Hey, your rates are only gonna go up 200 percent instead of 300 percent under Randy's plan.'"
2. Brock doesn't seem to know the difference between federal health care reform and state health care reform. As he did during the candidates' first debate on Vermont Public Radio, Brock repeatedly conflated the federal Affordable Care Act (Obama-Care, to all you Fox Newsers) with Shumlin's proposed single-payer plan. The former is currently being implemented; the latter won't see the light of day until 2017, at the earliest.
As he often does, Brock referred during the debate to the "$100 million" Shumlin is spending on his crazy health care plan. But as Shumlin pointed out, that money's being spent setting up the federally-mandated exchanges. "That has nothing to do with Pete Shumlin," the gov said. [In fairness to Brock, Shumlin was also correcting Mark Johnson, who appeared to mix up the two himself in a question.]
3. Faced with the fact(check)s, Shumlin doubles-down on jobs number. Citing a fact-check piece Seven Days and VTDigger.org published Wednesday, Johnson asked Shumlin if he stood by his contention that Vermont added 7500 jobs since taking office. We rated the claim "mostly false" because it refers to an outdated June report. Using Shumlin's own metrics, that number is actually 1700.
What'd Shumlin say to that? "My response is simple. As we know, unemployment rate numbers go up and down. Job creation numbers go up and down. I am citing the number that I had available to me, which is as of June. We created 7500 jobs since I've been governor."
The gov's right. They do go up and down. But if you're going to build your entire campaign around one number — which his campaign was doing as recently as yesterday — it's important you get that number right.
4. Brock doubles-down on being a Debbie Downer. For reasons we simply cannot explain, Brock continues to read from the Jim Douglas playbook, harping on Vermont's myriad failings: It's a terrible place to do business, it's a terrible place to retire, our kids are trampling each other getting out of the joint.
From a political perspective, this just doesn't make sense. Pessimism doesn't sell — particularly in a state as infatuated with itself as Vermont, where we're all quite convinced (rightfully so, I might add) that we're better than everybody else. It's the perfect setup for Shumlin to say: Actually, Randy, Vermont's pretty rad — and here's what I'm doing to make it even radder.
Except Shummy didn't quite nail the carefully-rehearsed rejoinder today. Instead, he summoned up the rather frightening image of Putney Pete running for president: "You know, Randy, in all due respect, sometimes I think you're not running for commander-in-chief, you're running for pessimist-in-chief."
5. Shumlin continues to call any discussion of his administration's response to Tropical Storm Irene off-limits. Asked by Johnson whether "the Shumlin administration bl[e]w it" in its reimbursement negotiations with FEMA, Brock said it was "not their finest hour" and, once again, outlined the administration's struggle securing funds to rebuild the Waterbury State Office Complex and the state psychiatric hospital.
"I understand that Randy's job is to try to build a case in the next six weeks to fire the governor and bring on a new governor. I understand campaigning and I understand silly season," Shumlin said. "I would ask this: One of the toughest things that we have all had to do together as Vermonters is deal with the tragedy of Irene. We lost six extraordinary Vermonters. We lost businesses. We lost homes. People saw their hopes and dreams swept away by a storm. All I ask is that we not politicize Irene."
6. Brock still can't articulate how he'd handle the state office complex and hospital rebuild differently than Shumlin. After suggesting that any business would have a "contingency plan" before building a facility without a sure-fire funding source, Brock said, "I'm not suggesting we delay anything in terms of replacing the state hospital. We have to rebuild the state hospital. We have to do it, but we have to know where the money's coming from. We have to have a plan, and we haven't had a plan until very, very recently, and that plan is still on the back of an envelope in the administration."
Okay, so what would he do differently?
7. Shumlin simply won't answer the question asked of him. This is old news to anyone who's covered one of the gov's press conferences, but he seems constitutionally unable to directly answer a question without sliding over to a vaguely-related talking point. Kudos to Johnson for at least trying to force Shumlin to answer him directly.