by Robert Maynard
The recently concluded elections have provided us with evidence that the GOP brand here in Vermont has become a liability for its candidates. One clear example was a poll done prior to the elections that had Wendy Wilton ahead when party affiliations were not mentioned, but losing when they were. Some have suggested that the reason for this image problem is that the GOP is seen as being against everything and for nothing. Their proposed solution is that the GOP moderate its positions and work with the Democrats in a more bipartisan spirit. The problem is that the weakening of the Vermont GOP’s base and bench has been quite a while in the making and is partially a result of the distinction between the two parties being blurred over the years. It is one thing to moderate one’s tone, but another to moderate the substance of what you stand for. If you have to go north to arrive at your destination and your opponent proposes to go south, you do not win over support by agreeing to go south with them but take the scenic route while they intend to take the expressway. Those who are won over by the prospect of going south are going to support the side taking the expressway and those who agree that we should go north will abandon you. The Vermont GOP needs to spend more of its time promoting its own vision so that when it has to oppose the Democrats for suggesting that we move in the opposite direction, it is seen as having a different vision of where we should go and not merely acting as obstructionists.
One of the clear examples is in the arena of health care. During the campaign Randy Brock laid out a vision of health care reform that is innovative and reflects the vision that Republicans should be promoting. The problem is that the health care reform debate has been going on in Vermont for decades and the debate has largely been one sided. The Vermont GOP has sometimes slowed down the Democrats’ rush to get the government more involved in our health care system, but has gone along with such plans at other times. While opposing previous attempts at single payer, GOP leaders ended up signing off on such initiatives as Community Rating, Guaranteed Issue and Catamount Health. The result is that the party has alienated both the supporters of single payer and the supporters of patient centered free market reform. This dynamic has been played out on other issues as well. During this time the few races where a clear distinction was made between the vision offered by the left and the vision offered by the GOP resulted in a vibrant volunteer effort across the state and wins in down ticket legislative races. We saw this dynamic being played out in the 1998 and 2000 races when Ruth Dwyer ran at the top of the ticket. In both cases a clear distinction was made between the visions offered by the two parties and in both races the GOP grew its ranks in the state legislature culminating in a House majority after the 2000 race. Since then the party decided that it needed to moderate itself and move toward the center. Moderating its tone probably was not such a bad idea, but moderating its substance blurred the distinction between the two parties and has destroyed the party’s bench and volunteer base of activists. This problem has been a long time in the making and is not going to be fixed overnight.
In addition to the problem with the GOP’s base having been decimated over the years, there is the matter of a hurricane Irene induced honeymoon that Governor Shumlin has enjoyed. Couple that with the enormous money imbalance between the two parties and you have a situation where winning election under the Vermont GOP banner was a stiff challenge. Fortunately for the Vermont GOP, the dynamics of this past election has offered the a way forward in the near future. That way forward is an opportunity to promote a patient centered free market approach to health care reform when the pitfalls of Green Mountain Care become more evident and the Irene induced honeymoon for Governor Shumlin recedes.
During this election, Governor Shumlin and the Democrats were forced to take the expansion of the sales tax to include services off the table as a way to pay for Green Mountain Care. They have also assured some in the business community that large payroll tax increases are off the table as well. There are not a whole lot of options left if you take these two revenue sources off the table. Short of pixie dust and money falling from the sky, or Washington D.C., the only other option would be a nearly five fold increase in the income tax to make up the revenue needed to pay for Green Mountain Care. The Democrats have had to back off from enacting single payer at least twice before because the numbers were not popular. Given how far out on the limb they went this time in portraying Vermont as the “Saskatchewan of the U.S.,” it will be hard to back off this time. On the other hand, turning around and saying: “We’re sorry but we need to put payroll tax increases and an expansion of the sales tax back on the table after all,” is not going to be a very popular option either. Here is where the Vermont GOP will have an opportunity not just to oppose Green Mountain Care, but to promote a patient centered free market alternative vision of health care reform.
Such opportunities will be there in areas other than health care as well when it becomes more evident that the rate of spending that we are on is not sustainable. The Vermont GOP must do more than oppose proposals from the left to stay on an unsustainable course, it needs to get out in front of the debate and propose a new course. Again, the Brock campaign offered a glimpse into how this may be done by linking Vermont’s past tradition of individual self-reliance with the reality of our 21st Century Information Age:
Vermonters have a long and proud tradition of independence, self-reliance and maintaining control over our own lives. That is the thread that joins today’s Vermont from its founding more than two hundred years ago. But we are living in a new century. Look around us: products and services are moving us even more toward a culture of personal responsibility in which we take charge of our lives and futures in a way never before achieved. From the adoption of new personal technologies (iPhones, Facebook, Google) to new personal services (Expedia, EBay), consumers are empowered on a personal and at the same time global scale. Extending that power to the individual has made every Vermonter smarter, more independent and more capable of managing complexity than ever. That is a tradition in which Vermonters want to control their own lives, make their own decisions, and not be bound by rules, bureaucracy, strictures and one-size-fits-all mandates from Montpelier.
This is a vision that can serve as a rudder for proposing free market solutions on a whole host of issues where we are headed in the wrong direction on an unsustainable course. Yes, we can and should moderate our tone, but not our substance. We can also cooperate with the Democrats and Progressives on matters where they are proposing a solution that does not move us in a direction opposite of where we want to go. What we should not continue to do is to propose that we take the scenic route in an unsustainable direction while the other side is on an expressway. We need to propose a new direction.