Editorial: Criticism — a reflection on us

The commentary in the aftermath of Gov. Peter Shumlin’s third inaugural speech this past Thursday is at once fascinating, nonsensical and maddening — but also enlightening as a mirror of our political culture.
Many critics were quick to pounce because the governor failed to elaborate on health care, economic growth, education reform or the $100 million budget gap the state is facing in the next fiscal year. Never mind he said he would take up those issues in his budget address this week, he should have done it Thursday. It’s criticism for criticism sake meant to demean an opponent, regardless of its validity.
Far worse was the disrespectful actions of a few dozen protesters of the Progressive persuasion, who disrupted the governor’s speech and a following benediction by the Rev. Robert Potter, because, as James Haslam, executive director of the Vermont Workers’ Center, said: “Vermont has come a long ways toward moving toward universal health care and we will not be derailed on that.” As if their perspective was the only viewpoint in the state that mattered. Haslam said he regretted that the protesters were disrespectful of Rev. Potter’s attempt to deliver the benediction, but said he had no regrets otherwise. If Vermonters didn’t know of the Workers’ Center before, they do now — and not in a good way.
Interesting comments also came from fellow media colleagues.
VTDigger noted that while the governor had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat earlier in the morning with the Legislature deciding the election, by afternoon (after the speech) the governor “had already lost ground.” The speech wasn’t visionary, the analysis said, just stuff on the state’s to-do list that he gussied up to sound good. No big deal to address the need for cleaning up the water in Lake Champlain (a perennial problem that no other governor has tackled) or to reimagine ways to stir more industrial growth in renewable energy while lowering the energy bills of thousands of Vermonters. That’s all part of the initiative he started a few years ago, and he’s just adding to it. (The initiatives, by the way, made national news and cast the state as a leader in that industry.) What’s really important about the governor’s speech, the analysis said, is what he didn’t say.
Fascinating, but do tell.
He didn’t rally the Legislature to stoke the state’s economy and finally solve the one thing the election had been about, the analysis continued, which was, of course, affordability. That is, the commentary continued, the governor didn’t explain how he was going to make Vermont more affordable to struggling residents over the next two years. Nor did he explain how he would reduce the property tax burden, or keep health care costs down, or grow jobs, or reduce crime, or part the waters or bring the Progressives under control. (Ok, I made up those last two items, but you get the point.)
And, no, he didn’t. He left his cape at home.
He has said he was humbled by the close election; he has noted he was too far out in front on his signature issues and that he would be more attentive to the public pulse and listen.
At another statewide media outlet, the editorial writer opined that the governor’s speech fell flat and that if the governor had any hopes of leading the Legislature in the next biennium, he had better “find his voice.”
Seriously? Someone is worried that this governor, who everyone has criticized the past four years for being too glib and leading the state into unchartered waters on tough issues, is going to have trouble finding his voice?
I don’t have an inside track to the governor’s thinking, but, what if — just to be generous — he and his speechwriters thought to themselves: ‘OK, let’s assess this election. Let’s also look at the major issues we have to address: water quality in Lake Champlain, the need for good jobs, school financing reform, $100 million budget gap in the next fiscal year, the need to keep health care costs under control, the continuing fight against opiate addiction, and on and on. We focused on education in the first inaugural speech, put the spotlight on the opiate addiction crisis in the second, perhaps we should split this year’s speech in two parts. In the first, we’ll focus on water quality in Lake Champlain and a proposal that continues our leadership in renewable energy programs, but one that also brings cost savings to the homeowner as much as it will strengthen the renewable energy sector. Then, we’ll address the nitty-gritty money issues in the budget address.’
If that’s how the conversation went, or something close, it doesn’t sound so ominous, does it? It doesn’t seem as if the governor is ducking the issues; doesn’t seem as if he’s lost his voice.
What he might be doing is taking a less aggressive approach on those issues that divide the state, rather than charging ahead as he has for the past four years, because he wants to rebuild the public’s trust in him. He wants to be positive and optimistic, but he doesn’t want to promise the moon on issues that everyone knows are not easily solved in two years.
So, for what may be the first time in this governor’s political life, he takes a more cautious and inclusive approach, and what happens? He gets slammed for being meek and delivering a flat speech.
The real question is what does that say about us?
Angelo S. Lynn

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