Analysis: Caving on Single-Payer, Shumlin Forfeits Remaining Credibility | Off Message

Analysis: Caving on Single-Payer, Shumlin Forfeits Remaining Credibility


Gov. Peter Shumlin on Wednesday in Montpelier - PAUL HEINTZ
  • Paul Heintz
  • Gov. Peter Shumlin on Wednesday in Montpelier
Gov. Peter Shumlin’s critics, liberal and conservative alike, have always doubted his resolve to create the nation’s first single-payer health care system.

On Wednesday afternoon, Shumlin proved them prescient.

In an extraordinary about-face, the man who built his political career on the promise of bringing universal, affordable health insurance to Vermont said that, within the last five days, he had suddenly concluded that doing so would damage the state’s economy.

“It became clear that the risk of economic shock is too high at this time to offer a plan that I can responsibly support for passage in the legislature,” Shumlin told a rapt crowd in a first-floor hearing room of the Statehouse.

His decision to scrap his own, long-promised plan and move forward with more modest reforms, he said, was “the greatest disappointment of my political life, so far.”

No doubt it was equally disappointing to those who took Shumlin at his word when he first ran for governor in 2010 pledging to “get tough things done” like turning single-payer from liberal dream to reality. Or to those who believed him when he said it again two years later during his 2012 race for reelection — or again two years after that.

Indeed, as Shumlin formally launched his latest campaign this September, he drew enormous applause when he singled out Vermont Health Care for All founder Deb Richter and her quest for single-payer.

“And with Deb in my sights, we are moving forward on the nation’s first single-payer health care system that contains cost, takes the burden off of employers and simplifies the system for all Vermonters,” Shumlin told an audience of supporters during a rally at Burlington’s Main Street Landing. “I was elected to get tough things done and this may well be the toughest, but I will not rest until it is done.”

Apparently, he decided to take a breather after all.

During Wednesday’s press conference, Vermont Public Radio’s Peter Hirschfeld asked Shumlin whether he regretted looking Richter in the eye at that September announcement, promising once again to finish the job.

“Do you wish that you hadn’t told people that you were going to get this done over the past four years?” Hirschfeld asked.

“You know, I wish that the finances had worked better than they do for Vermont,” Shumlin responded. “And you have to ask yourself when you run for governor and you’re lucky enough to be elected, ‘Do you want to take on the big challenges? Or do you want to refuse to take political risk because you’re fearful that it might have political ramifications that you don’t like?’”

He continued: “My view about leadership is, take on the big issues, try to get after the things that are really holding Vermonters back and think big to try to get tough things done. And that’s just who I am. So do I regret who I am? No.”

That’s a mighty generous characterization of his own follow-through. From the outside, at least, it appears that Shumlin simply sought to reap the political rewards of a promise he could not deliver on and then flinched before “tak[ing] on the big challenges” of defending it in front of the business community and the legislature.

Of course, anyone who’s listened closely to the governor’s rhetoric in recent months should have seen the Great Cave coming. Even as he promised a panacea to his liberal supporters, Shumlin winked and nodded to everybody else and left a mile-wide opening through which he could escape.

Calling himself “one of the most pro-business, anti-tax governors that you’ve seen in a long time” during an appearance on VPR’s "Vermont Edition" in September, Shumlin said, “If we come up with a financing plan that doesn't grow jobs, economic opportunity and make Vermont more prosperous, trust me, we're not gonna do it.”

At least Shumlin kept one of his promises.

To be sure, the governor sounded eminently sincere and completely reasonable Wednesday when he laid out the enormous obstacles in the path of implementing a fiscally sustainable single-payer system.

The taxes required for a plan providing sufficient benefits to make the transition worthwhile, he said, were “in a word, ‘enormous.’” Taxing employers 11.5 percent of their payroll and all Vermonters up to 9.5 percent of their income would be enormously disruptive — even if it resulted in the savings Shumlin spent years promising. And the logistical hurdles he cited were equally compelling: the difficulty of obtaining a federal waiver, the expense of easing small businesses into the system and Vermont’s worsening revenue forecasts.

But Shumlin is a very smart man. His top health care advisers — Robin Lunge, Michael Costa and Lawrence Miller — deeply understand health care policy. So it is literally beyond belief that they didn’t see these challenges coming. The notion that they obtained some new scrap of data last Friday that utterly changed the game is entirely implausible.

More plausible is that Shumlin finally recognized the unmistakable political reality that he was unlikely to sign into law anything close to what he’d been promising for years — so he decided to just cut his losses.

After narrowly winning a plurality of the vote last month, Shumlin found himself with little political capital — and his putative allies in the legislature showed no sign of coming to his assistance.

It’s been clear for months that the governor lacked the votes to pass single-payer in the Senate. House Speaker Shap Smith (D-Morristown) and the leaders of his Democratic caucus have made plain that they’re far more interested in tackling education finance in the coming legislative session. And even Burlington Progressives, who ostensibly believe in nothing more than universal health care — such as Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) and activist attorney John Franco — have distanced themselves from the administration’s approach.

In a column for, the generally astute Jon Margolis argued late Wednesday that, “Politically, Shumlin is likely to gain from his loss.”

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Blood was already in the water after Shumlin nearly fell to political novice Scott Milne in November. Now that the governor has capitulated to those who’ve always opposed his signature policy priority, he has forfeited the perception that his political skills are to be feared and respected. More importantly, he has lost any remaining credibility that he means what he says.

In one of the more bizarre statements he made Wednesday, Shumlin said, “I recognize that it may be hard to put this news in perspective given the scrutiny it has received over the past four years.”

“The scrutiny it has received over the past four years?” Really? Already, it seems, Shumlin has adopted a passive voice, shrugging his shoulders as if he’s confused about why anyone expected him to actually deliver the goods.

Now that his political Ponzi scheme has tumbled to the ground, what is left is the shell of a governorship, devoid of credibility and purpose.

Since Milne made clear in the days after the election that he would not concede to Shumlin, the incumbent has said that he would not want to be governor if he had not won the most votes. What’s unclear now is why Shumlin would want to be governor if he’d come to the conclusion that he was unable to keep the promises he made to get elected.

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