In the world of incumbent advantage, debates are the great equalizer. No matter who's up or down in the polls, in the race for campaign cash or in organizing a ground game, debates bring to the table just candidates, ideas and arguments.
It's the best venue for a long-shot challenger like Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) to make his case against a popular incumbent governor, like Democrat Peter Shumlin.
But at the first gubernatorial debate of the season Wednesday night at Vermont Public Radio's Colchester studios, Brock failed to make that case. Shumlin was better prepared, consistently on-message and totally unwilling to discuss the shortcomings of his two-year tenure. And Brock failed to force him to do so.
Here are seven reasons we believe Shumlin won — and Brock lost — the debate:
1. Shumlin asked smart, tactical questions. As if Brock were the incumbent, Shumlin called on his challenger to explain whether he stood by his votes against legalizing gay marriage and against allowing the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant to remain open. Those questions served the duel purpose of drawing squishy answers out of Brock and highlighting the incumbent's stance on two issues on which he holds the majority view.
As he did with the gay marriage question, Shumlin sought to portray Brock as socially out-of-the-mainstream when he asked whether Brock stood by controversial comments uttered by Maine Gov. Paul LePage equating the Internal Revenue Service with the Gestapo — a question Brock somehow flubbed (see below).
2. Brock's questions, on the other hand, were scattered and ineffective. Right out of the gate, Brock's first question about Shumlin's renewable energy policy gave his opponent a chance to tout one of his central talking points: that he's growing green jobs. Brock's follow-up? Quibbling with a Bureau of Labor Statistics study that found Vermont has the most green jobs and calling it a "junk statistic" because it includes VPIRG lawyers and bus drivers.
Shumlin's response: "So are you telling me you want to fire the folks in Vermont with green jobs, lay them off?"
To which Brock said, "No, what I'm saying is it's a meaningless statistic."
3. Brock's FEMA answers were muddled and uncertain. Just hours before the debate got started, Shumlin announced some pretty bad news at a Waterbury press conference: Despite his administration's expectations, assurances and best efforts, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is nowhere close to funding replacements for a state psychiatric hospital and office complex destroyed by Tropical Storm Irene.
It was a perfect opportunity for Brock to poke a hole in Shumlin's record managing the state's response to Irene, but Brock failed to articulate what he'd do differently — other than perform more contingency planning. Pushed by co-moderator Jane Lindholm to articulate his own vision, Brock said "As a challenger it's not my job to create detailed economic and building plans to replace, but it is my job to say these are the broad policies that we should follow to get to that result." Brock's broad policies? "To do a contingency plan that takes into account the worst-case probability and then determines how we will fund it."
4. On health care, Brock came off as callous. When the topic turned to the candidates' competing health care reform plans, co-moderator Bob Kinzel played back tape of Brock saying health insurance should be treated somewhat like car insurance: if you're always getting in trouble on the road (or you get sick a lot), you should pay higher premiums. Brock gave a surprising answer when Kinzel asked, "Unlike a speeding ticket which is primarily my responsibility, I might have a medical condition that's not the result of my behavior in any way. So why is it fair to ask people who have these types of medical conditions to pay higher premiums for their health care?"
After a pronounced pause, Brock said, "A speeding ticket is something that you presumably have caused, and many times an illness is the result of behavior over a period of time. People who don't take care of themselves, people who don't exercise, people who smoke, who drink to excess. Should there in fact be some sort of reduction in insurance premium and insurance cost for people who practice wellness and should we encourage wellness as part of a health care plan and program, and I think we should."
Gosh, try playing back those first two sentences to someone suffering from breast cancer. If ever the race tightens up to the point where Team Shumlin needs to launch some attack ads, they've got their soundbite.
5. Brock still hasn't figured out how to answer the LePage question. When Shumlin asked Brock if he regretted standing by and saying nothing when Maine Gov. Paul LePage repeated a controversial comment equating the IRS with the Gestapo during a Brock fundraiser in July, Brock continued to defend LePage.
"Gov. LePage has never been noted for political correctness, and he did not disappoint this time," Brock said at the debate. "I certainly said to the media that I didn't agree with that statement, and I don't."
First of all, that's not entirely true. I was standing there at the time, and Brock declined to disavow the comment until LePage walked away. You can listen to the audio here and make your own judgment.
More telling, though, was the second part of Brock's debate answer, during which he argued that LePage "was using hyperbole in the same way that a show like Seinfeld refers to the Soup Nazi."
Seinfeld was funny. LePage's comments were scary, stupid and offensive. Why Brock continues to carry water for the Maine governor is hard to figure out. There was a simple, in-and-out answer available to Brock: "Gov. LePage's comments were wrong and I totally disagree with them."
6. Brock flip-flopped on gay marriage. Asked by Shumlin whether he'd vote again today — as he did in April 2009 — against legalizing gay marriage, Brock first explained his original vote: "I believed that the redefinition of marriage from that of one man and one woman — which has existed for centuries as a tradition in, not just America, but in the world in general — was the proper thing to do."
After Brock went on to say that he supports equal rights for all, that he recently presided over a gay marriage as a justice of the peace and that he wouldn't "roll back the clock" as governor, Shumlin pressed him again on how he'd vote on the bill today.
"Since we are where we are today and it's a reality in Vermont, I would vote yes," Brock said.
7. The best Shumlin knock of the night came not from Brock, but from Bob Kinzel. On the topic of nuclear energy, Brock found himself defending a pie-in-the-sky idea he floated to the Newport Daily Express of building a second nuclear power plant beside Vermont Yankee in Vernon.
Shumlin also got put on the defensive, but it wasn't by Brock. Kinzel noted that Shumlin's work as senate president to shutter Vermont Yankee has landed the state in legal limbo.
"So here's the situation we have while the case is under appeal, which could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court," Kinzel said. "One, Vermont Yankee is still operating. Two, none of the power produced at the plant is being sold to Vermont utilities. Three, more radioactive waste is being generated — waste that will have to be stored on-site. Some say your strategy has been a total failure. You've achieved none of your goals and you've cost the state millions of dollars in legal fees with more costs to come. Why are they wrong?"
Damn! Is it too late to nominate Kinzel for governor?