July 16th, 2008

Shut VDB’s Mouth: Obama Maintains Lead

by Philip Baruth

When one poll bears out the going mainstream narrative, it’s purest truth; when five fail to do so, they’re dismissed as so much trash. Case in point: Newsweek’s last poll showed a hefty drop for Obama, and the election essentially tied, which, as we all know, showed that the American people won’t abide a flip-flopper. Wouldn’t be prudent.

Two new polls show the Obama lead still intact, though, which, as we all know, demonstrates that all post-Newsweek pollsters don’t know their butts from a hole in the ground. Quinnipiac had Obama up by 9 yesterday; ABC/WaPo has the lead at 8, based on solid gains among voters worried about the economy.

But how many of those can there be out there in these madcap prosperous times?

July 15th, 2008

Rove At LAX: Frenzied Reader Dispatch Paints Sad Portrait of a Pasty, Pasty Man

by Philip Baruth

Old friend and longtime VDB-reader Rick writes in about a disturbing but altogether true encounter at LAX with disgraced Republican operative Karl Rove. Like most brushes with evil-doers, this one may well have changed Rick forever. Because it does involve physical contact. And Fox News. May the Lord have mercy on us. Warning: violence, profanity, and pastiness alert. — PB

Dear VDB,

Gotta tell you this, because of all my friends, you’d appreciate it most deeply.

I flew into LAX today to spend the next 3 weeks writing an emergency book project, just found out about it 4 days ago. So I arrive and for some reason on the way to Baggage Claim I duck into the Hudson Booksellers in the terminal.

I’m perusing the nonfiction when somebody bumps my shoulder lightly — a soft pasty collision.

I look over and it’s . . . Karl Fucking Rove.

I am not shitting you. He’s looking over the “R” section of the books, as if seeking a title by “Rove” that’s not there. I reach up and pull out “Nixonland” by Rick Perlstein just to see if he’d notice, but he’s too busy bending over low, looking through the R’s.

I fight the urge to lean over and say, “You’re going after ‘bitter,’ aren’t you? The flip-flop meme is just an early feint, to get us thinking Kerry ‘04, but you’re going to pivot and go bitter in the heartland.”

It’s going to be guns and religion. That’s all you’ve got, fat boy. The ironic thing is, at that moment I’m holding the new issue of The New Yorker in my hand. I bought it in the Denver airport, the one with the Obamas as fist-bumping terrorists on the cover. I want to hold it up and say, “Look, Karl, you’ve got the liberal press doing your job for you.”

Up close, he actually looks like a pretty nice guy, but I know too much about him. The whole thing really spooks me.

Karl picks up the new book by George Will, “One Man’s America,” flips through it, and looks (I think) dismissively at the inside flap. Like, “George is old. He smells. He smells like Bob Dole. But then, so does McCain.”

Then it gets weirder. I’m not making this up. I hear a familiar nasally voice behind me say, kind of nice guy but weasel-like: “Karl, I’ll be in the lounge.” Like, I’m tired of your book fetish. Can we get a freaking drink?

I turn around and it’s . . . Chris Wallace. I am totally not kidding. The Fox Boys, both of them, in Hudson Booksellers in LAX.

Then comes the best part. Rove says, “I’ll see you there,” but he’s still perusing books. Wallace leaves, heading for scotch and (later no doubt) Korean whores. I decide to exit because I want to grab Rove’s face and stretch it horizontally.

As I’m leaving, some guy outside the bookstore is all excited, talking on his cell phone. He says, “Yeah, I just saw Karl Rove in there with that news guy from NPR.”

NPR! Just a great surreal moment. I wish Chris Wallace could have heard that, but he was already gone. He might have found it funny, although maybe not. He too seemed like a pretty nice guy, although if I had a gun I might have shot him in the thigh just to see if he cries.

Hard to believe, but none of this is made up. Karl Rove and Chris Wallace, hauling stylish carry-on bags together, heading for the lounge before the limo to important LA locations — but Karl needs to stop and see if his book is in the frigging airport Hudson Booksellers.

Evil is human.

— Rick

July 15th, 2008

Franken Watch: Get Happy, Folks

by Philip Baruth

Double-plus good news on the Franken front. First, Jesse Ventura apparently consulted with his oversized ego and decided not to enter the Minnesota Senate race, which bodes well for Franken’s chances. Second, the new poll numbers bode even weller: for the first time in a long time, Franken shows a slim lead there, 44% to 42%. Not outside the margin of error, but well within the margin of hope.

You go, Al.

al franken, baby

July 14th, 2008

Symington Sees Douglas Criticism on VY Appointees as Pure Strategery: That and Other Tidbits in the VDB Sit-Down

by Philip Baruth

Does Gaye Symington think that the Governor’s criticism of her appointee to the Vermont Yankee review board is pure politics, a way to set the stage for an outright dismissal of the committee’s findings, should those findings lean the wrong way? In a word, “Sure.” More in the long interview with Symington you’ll find right about here.

Late Update, Monday, 5:40 pm:

Now that’s nimble. It looks as though the Symington campaign, far from getting their brains beat in with Jessica’s Law, has managed a nifty bit of jujitsu: they have the Douglas camp apologizing, on behalf of the Department of Corrections, for the early release of Brooke Bennett’s suspected killer.

Seven years early, to be exact.

The press release focuses in like a laser: “The Governor has acknowledged the decision was a mistake, but he has not called for a full investigation of the matter. All he has requested is that his commissioner of Corrections ‘look at the procedure’ for making these decisions. This is an unacceptably weak response in light of the tragic consequences of his department’s failure in this case.”

Nice phrasing: unacceptably weak. We smell a bumper sticker in the making.

July 14th, 2008

Three Races With The Potential to Upend the Predictable Political World As We Know It

by Philip Baruth

There’s a lot to keep track of, all of the sudden: the cooling towers are hinky over at Yankee again, Lindsay Lohan’s got a new secret half-sister, and apparently we’re about to have a run on the banks. With all of that in the hopper, it’s tough to keep a weather eye on state and local races underway.

So VDB’s reduced the field to manageable proportions. Here are three races with the potential to change life on earth as we know it:

Kesha Ram, Democrat
House of Representatives
Chittenden 3-4: Burlington’s Hill Section, Old North End, and University District

Following on the heels of Rachel Weston’s successful House campaign, recent UVM graduate Kesha Ram is deploying a very similar strategy: getting out early, building bridges with everyone and their sister, and making herself a fixture at the doors in her Old North End neighborhood. Like Weston, Ram has turned her youth to her advantage, capitalizing on the national theme of change.

How can one woman change the state? Well, should Ram and her running mate Sam Werbel defeat their opponents — a couple of regular guys named Zuckerman and Pearson — the Progressive Party would lose a third of its House caucus, and most of its elected leadership.

And that, as Bernie would say, could be yuge. Look for fireworks as this one heads to the wire.

Tom Stevens, Democrat
House of Representatives


Tom Stevens is 1) former Chair of the Waterbury Select Board, 2) executive director of the Vermont Alliance for Arts Education, and 3) one of the sharpest political minds currently in operation. The seat in question was held by a Democrat, Robert Dostis; characteristically enough, Tom was out of the gate and actively in pursuit of it before others interested had a chance to eat their Wheaties.

Will Tom win? Oh yeah. Especially when you consider that his campaign is powered by the preternatural marketing savvy of his wife and VDB Floor Team operative, Liz Schlegel. This one will be ugly — for anyone who jumps in against Tom, that is.

Nate Freeman, Democrat
Lieutenant Governor

The 2008 cycle has been remarkable for the number of name politicians who sniffed the big-ticket races and then backed off. Gaye Symington stepped into the Governor’s race late, but managed a sprint out of the starting gate. But the Lieutenant Governor’s race was going begging, a genuine embarrassment for the state’s majority party.

Enter Nate Freeman. Nate is a Justice of the Peace and a furniture maker from down Northfield way, as well as a ubiquitous presence in the political blogosphere. He is precisely the sort of candidate who wouldn’t have found a media spotlight in any other year, coming as he does from outside the Montpelier framework, and precisely the kind of candidate who will quickly begin to exceed the low expectations outsiders generate.

Nate is smart, and articulate, and knows what he believes. Remember Rocky’s first fight with Apollo Creed? First round knock-down? Watch for Nate to clip our current Lieutenant Governor in more or less the same way during the one debate Dubie will allow.

And after that, all bets are off.

July 10th, 2008

The Expansive Vision of Gaye Symington: VDB Debriefs Dem Candidate for Governor

by Philip Baruth

VDB Engages, Debriefs, and Generally Talks Turkey With the Democratic Candidate for Governor

Not sure why it is exactly, but my interviews have a habit of coinciding with strange medical issues as regards the interviewee. When I interviewed Peter Welch in 2005, he had narrowly escaped death: he’d cut his thumb on a soda can, then badly infected the wound stacking wood.

the crowd, huddled

The upshot was that we did the interview with his thumb wrapped in a knob of thick gauze, which gave his hand gestures — especially when calling for the firing of Donald Rumsfeld — a special sort of impact.

When I walked into Gaye Symington’s campaign office — one of many in the Vermont Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign headquarters — she was seated with her back to the window, and watching me with wide eyes. Really wide eyes.

Wide enough to be unsettling, in fact, until the Speaker of the House shook my hand and told me that she’d just had her pupils dilated during an appointment with her optometrist. Like Welch, Symington was a trouper and did the entire hour-long interview anyway. But the dilated pupils did lend her face a certain drama throughout — like some inescapable symbol of what George H. W. Bush used to call “the vision thing.”

We talked about a string of serious issues, from crime and punishment to nuclear waste, but throughout Symington maintained an easy poise, and a very calm demeanor. In all of the pieces I’ve read on the candidate, none mention her sense of humor, that I remember. But she laughs easily, and with gusto.

Of course, that sense of humor may be a requirement and not a choice, in a three-way race that threatens to split the anti-Douglas vote. But either way, it helps.


VDB: If I could, I’d like to go straight to today’s headline in the Rutland Herald (“Dubie Begins Push For Longer Sentences”), a nice Louis Porter story but to my mind an utterly predictable development in the race. In fact, I did a post this morning, where I went back to my interview with Anthony Pollina in March, and back then — without knowing of course that Brooke Bennett would be horribly, brutally murdered — I talked to Pollina about the possibility of something just like this being used in the campaign.

I pointed out that Jim Douglas always runs against his Democratic or Progressive opposition by painting them as tax-and-spend liberals, and then he has one hot-button social issue. Last couple of times out, it’s been sexual predation and, as an offshoot of that, civil commitment.

And, honestly, Anthony Pollina’s answer to the question in March was not reassuring to those of us who are afraid that the race for Governor will be lost on issues like these. So what struck me in Porter’s article was that you use the phrase “counter-intuitive” to describe your own position on mandatory minimum sentences of, say, 25 years: you oppose these hefty minimum guidelines and argue that they’re actually productive of less security for the community.

So I’m wondering if that is in fact your position, and if so can you run that out for us. But then can you specifically address the other question: how do you deal with an opponent who is very skilled at invoking those sorts of fears, and in championing tough-sounding legislation as the solution?

Symington: Well, I agree with you this is predictable. For the last couple of weeks my stump speech has included a line saying, “You’re going to hear that I’m a tax and spend liberal, and you will probably also hear that I’m soft on crime, and communism.”

VDB: Were you serious about the communism part? Or was that a joke?

Symington Communications Director Michael Carrese: [Shouting from cubicle] That’s a joke!

Symington: [Laughing] Part of where I’m coming from is I’m actually trying to do some fact-checking around what Douglas has done in terms of implementing the law that we [the Legislature] put in place. But for me this whole issue boils down to being smart on crime, not just tough on crime. And that is where I come from. We took, in my first biennium as Speaker, we took a very careful approach and created the Sexual Violence Prevention Act. And it had a number of different aspects to it. We redid our sentencing, we focused on prevention issues, we focused on treatment issues, but largely redid our sentencing.

VDB: So it’s now in line with laws in other states, like Florida, for instance.

Symington: Basically it established what’s called an “indeterminate life sentence.” If you commit a crime like this, you’re going to be under the supervision of the Department of Corrections for a long time — your life. Even if you finish your sentence you will always be pulled back in if something goes wrong. There will always be the capacity to pull you back under more strict supervision if you violate the terms of your probation in any way at all, and not just by committing another crime.

The other part is — the important thing to realize is how hard it is to prove a crime of sexual violence. These are not crimes where someone is jumping out of the bushes at somebody, at a young girl. It’s inevitably — and horribly this story [of Brooke Bennett] follows this pattern — it’s someone who should be a trusted person in that young girl’s life. And you end up with one person’s word against another. A young girl’s word, a child’s word against a grown-up. And they’re crimes committed in private, and they’re very, very hard to prove.

If someone is accused of sexual violence, and is facing a twenty-five year minimum sentence, they’re not going to accept a plea. They’re going to take it to court. And the fact is, the crimes are hard to prove and the perpetrators end up going free. No jail time, no registration on the Sex Offender Registry, no identification in the community, you know, nothing, scot-free. And that’s why the victims advocates and the prosecutors testified [in Legislative hearings] against long mandatory minimum sentences.

VDB: So, assuming that one of these offenders takes a plea, under the system that you passed and just described, what does their life look like then?

Symington: The one other aspect of it —

VDB: Yeah, sure.

Symington: — we also make it more likely that they will take a plea by establishing what are called Special Investigative Units. And Chittenden and Franklin Counties — this is where I’m trying to do some fact-checking — but Chittenden and Franklin Counties have had a lot of success with these Special Investigative Units.

And you have specially trained officers who know how to ask questions, who right from the bat work with the victim, work with the suspect, and their experience helps it lead to a plea, to a conviction. And that was also an important part of the Sexual Violence Prevention Act was expanding the Special Investigative Unit concept statewide.

And what I’m trying to understand now — I believe that the Douglas Administration has not appointed those investigators for the other counties. We’ve not gone that step. That’s what I’ve been told.

VDB: That’s interesting.

Symington: Now your question was what happens when somebody is convicted —

VDB: Right. So instead of shooting for the 25-year minimum with this suspect, as a policy goal, we’re shooting to get them to admit their crime and get them into the system. But once they’re in the system, what do their sentences generally look like?

Symington: There’s a presumed minimum of 10 years, a presumptive minimum of 10 years. That leaves some wiggle room —

VDB: For individual judges.

Symington: —but there’s a presumptive minimum of 10 years. There’s treatment. Now those who argue that these people cannot be treated, that hasn’t been totally — I mean, there are those who will commit crimes, clearly. But I believe that Vermont has a fairly decent track record around treatment. And then, the third aspect is that you leave the system, but you can always be pulled back in. And there’s the Sex Offender Registry.

VDB: Another place where Douglas has located what I think of as a hitch in left-wing orthodoxy is civil commitment. So Douglas’s proposal is to say: we will keep these people not just “in the system,” but physically in jail, past their stated sentences, if we determine that they’re still a risk. Does this legislation you’ve been describing close out the debatable need for civil commitment, in Douglas’s terms?

Symington: Yes. We basically worked — and I believe there was one last piece that Dick Sears and Bill Lippert and Brian Dubie agreed to at the beginning of this biennium — because basically we had come to the agreement that the problem was the folks who had already been convicted [before the Sexual Violence Prevention Act took effect] and were already in jail, because they had been convicted under the old laws. I believe there is basically this very tight leash aspect that we agreed to, that if somebody leaves prison without having completed their treatment, they can be brought back to the system on a hair trigger, if they violate any aspect of their probation.

VDB: But I guess the sticking point would be: are they let out of prison until such time as they violate some provision again?

Symington: [Nodding] Until they violate something.

VDB: Okay. Because if I understand Douglas’s position, he’s saying that in such a case he might not let them out at all. So is that —

Symington: I realize that’s what he’s implying. The interesting thing is that’s what he implied before, and then he didn’t put the money in the budget. I mean, this is very expensive. Because in order to justify it to people who believe in our constitutional rights, you have to prove that you’re actually providing treatment, that this is a mental health issue.

That’s the only way that it stands up in court, in the other states that have [civil commitment]. Very expensive. Take the same resources, and put them into Special Investigative Units, put them into the kind of supervision that really works. You’re going to get a lot more community safety for the dollar.

VDB: Now, you talked a lot about these Special Investigative Units just now, but they didn’t appear anywhere in what you said in the Herald article I mentioned. And it seems to me that they make a perfect answering sound bite to the one Dubie and Douglas are now using about Jessica’s Law. Because both of them speak to the issue, and the active aggressive enforcement of the law. The false frame is that it’s either 25-year minimums or nothing.

Symington: My tale is the timing, and I saw this coming and I sent some people to confirm for me where we stand on appointing these Special Unit investigators. And then this [the Bennett murder] all unfolds, and I’m not ready, you know, I’m still trying to understand where are we. Why is it that we haven’t moved on appointing those investigators, so that we can have that tool throughout the state when we’ve seen such success with it?

VDB: Okay. I just had to get that issue off my chest, because it was this morning’s news, and it’s really not this morning’s news, it’s news from every one of the last three elections. It’s the same story.

Symington: I agree with you. [Smiles] And it’s very frustrating.

VDB: If I could go back to the beginning of this cycle, for a minute. I was listening this morning to an interview you did with Bob Kinzel on Vermont Edition back in May. And he asked you what I think a lot of people in Vermont are asking themselves — about the three-way dynamic with Pollina, Douglas and yourself. And Bob Kinzel asked you why you’d get into the race when Pollina had been in so long, and had a campaign up and funded. And not to simplify it too much, but your answer revolved around giving voters “a real choice.”

And that struck me as the sort of answer that Anthony Pollina himself has always given in earlier races where a name Democrat had already staked out a claim. The choice idea has been the response of most Progressive candidates. So it seems as though, depending on who’s out first, the justification for having or not having three in the race switches back and forth between Democrats and Progressives.

What I hear from people, especially those who write me through my site, is that they’re very worried and a little demoralized, because they feel as though if they go out and knock on doors or send money, that it’s a doomed enterprise from the start. What are your thoughts on all of this now that you’ve been in the race for a couple of months?

Symington: I will answer your question, but I want to first say that when I entered the race, I certainly did the math around the race. I knew I was entering a three-way race; I never expected Anthony to leave the race. I wouldn’t ask him to leave the race any more than I’d ask Jim Douglas. I felt it was a winnable race. I’m not in this to carry the banner for the party, I’m in this to win the Governorship.

VDB: Yup.

Symington: I truly believe that I’ve got the ideas and the experience to bring to bear. Now that I’ve been in the race, I feel that even more strongly. I very much hear it from — you know, the race involves getting beyond the party faithful, getting beyond the base. It involves reaching out to Vermonters, who, you know, vaguely know who’s who and who’s making things happen, but aren’t living and breathing this, in terms of reading news articles, or blogs or everything else.

VDB: Now would those Vermonters you need to reach be people who have in the past tended to pull the lever for Republicans or for Progressives? Or Independents?

Symington: They would be Independents. I think most Vermonters don’t think of themselves in terms of Republican or Democrat or Progressive, whatever. I think they are looking at people, and they don’t vote straight tickets. I definitely feel a sense of — that here is someone who is going to bring some energy and has a record of getting things done. And bringing people together in order to get things done.

And I know that aspect of me is frustrating to people who are one flavor of Kool-Aid drinker or another, but for most Vermonters I think they really appreciate that. I listen and pull people together. And it’s reinforced that original decision for me.

VDB: Related question, and again one that Bob Kinzel asked you first, but I wanted to follow up in a certain way. He asked you about the eventuality where none of the three candidates in the race get to 50%, and the decision goes to the Legislature. You would seem to have a big advantage in that case: it’s a large Democratic caucus, that you were leading until recently, and many of those people are personally loyal to you. I noticed that you answered Kinzel by saying you’d leave it up to the Legislature to decide.

Now, Jim Douglas is obviously nobody’s fool, and I think he will try his damndest to make an issue of that — the fact that you have not taken an absolute pledge to honor the will of the people, as his phrasing goes. My question is this: can you see yourself taking that mild heat, in a debate or on the trail, all the way to Election Day? Or do you think you might change your mind and take that pledge at some point?

Symington: [Takes a moment to think] My focus is on getting 50% plus one votes. That’s where I’m focusing. It is — I will not be a member of the Legislature in January. It is up to the Legislature.

VDB: Yup.

Symington: [Clears throat] I’m basically saying what Jim Douglas said in 2002, “This provision is in our Constitution, and I’ll leave it to the Legislature.” I am not a member of the Legislature in January, and my focus is on getting 50% plus one votes.

VDB: Okay. Because I’m remembering a debate with Brian Dubie and Matt Dunne, and there was similar talk that Dunne might be able to hold Dubie below 50% and that if he got within a few points, the Legislature might see their way clear to put him in the Lieutenant Governor’s office. But Dunne wound up taking that pledge in the debate. So it seems to me that it will become a campaign issue, if Douglas frames it as a sort of Legislative coup.

Symington: He needs to make that case against the Legislature. My job does not relate to the Legislature. I think it’d be very hard for the Legislature to undo, you know, to reverse — there’s so many different scenarios that it will depend upon. And that’s why I’m encouraging people to vote for me, and not take this whole chance. The bottom line is that Vermont is hurt by Jim Douglas’s lack of leadership. And I’m bringing ideas, and I’m bringing a track record of getting things done.

VDB: Going forward, what do you think your real pull-no-punches, hard-hitting issues are going to be against Douglas, if you had to list them one two three?

Symington: He claims to be Jim Equals Jobs. We have the lowest job growth in all of New England. The jobs that are growing are low-wage jobs. Nine out of ten of the jobs we are getting are low-wage jobs. Nurses are the exception. The gap between high and low income-earning families is growing faster than any state in the country, other than Connecticut. And Governor Douglas turns around and says, “It’s George Bush’s fault, it’s the Legislature’s fault.”

We have a lake. If we’re going to be called the greenest state, pretty soon it’s going to be because of the algae in that lake. We are not enforcing, we are not preventing run-off. We’re shifting those costs onto taxpayers. We’ve spent $85 million bucks and we don’t even know what we’re measuring, as a state, in terms of measuring our progress and knowing where to spend our dollars most effectively. [Voice rising now] We’ve been told that over and over and over again, and yet we just pour money into the lake.

Energy. We have no plan for our energy future, either on thermal energy, or electric energy. We have a Governor who’s passed up opportunities on the Connecticut River dams, we have a Governor who constantly turns and protects the interests of a Louisiana-based corporation [Entergy] that has made millions of dollars of profits by operating a plant in Windham County [Vermont Yankee]. He’s saying it’s too much to ask them to live up to their original promise to fully fund that decommissioning fund? And as a result, we’re going to pay — it’s okay to just shift $500 million dollars worth of expenses onto Vermont taxpayers.

VDB: Conservatively. These estimates on clean-up, for all of these sorts of plants, are always wildly understated.

Symington: We are being consciously backed up against a wall of impossible choices. Vermonters perceive themselves to have no choice but to sign on for another 40 years of that plant. So those are my three. [Ticking them off] Lake, energy and jobs. I only did three. [Hooks a thumb at campaign manager Jill Krowinski] They always say I go on too long, but I only did three.

VDB: Well, that last one, the energy piece — particularly with regard to Entergy — I wanted to ask you about anyway. To go back to the electoral strategy problem we began with, the way it usually works is this: Douglas is the first to put up an aggressive ad, framing the race, and then the Democrat responds. Given that Jim Douglas vetoed the decommissioning fund bill [requiring Entergy to show financial wherewithal to return the Yankee site to “greenfield” status], I’m wondering if you’ll be making that a real campaign push, and might you do some advertising about that single issue?

Symington: The first focal point for me, in terms of putting out a specific platform, is in the world of both thermal and electric energy. Whether it’s a paid advertisement — in the summer when people are focused on the Fourth of July, and basketball camps and juggling their jobs and their kids — I don’t think that’s the wisest time to be spending money on advertising. But I will be putting emphasis on that aspect of what I think about energy.

the crowd, huddled

VDB: To stay with Yankee for just a minute, do you believe the notion that decommissioning is not a credible option because we have no alternative to that energy, and where exactly do you stand on decommissioning as an actual prospect?

Symington: I believe that that is the scenario that the current Governor is painting, for sure. Every piece of energy policy that they put out points in that direction. You know, this energy plan that he’s put out, it points exactly in that direction [Gets out of chair, still talking, and begins to sift through a plastic file cube sitting on floor behind her], that it’s a low-carbon footprint energy, that it would be twice as expensive without Yankee, etc. [Turns to look at me, as she rifles files] I know this is obnoxious, and I promise I won’t do it again. [Hauls out folder and brings it back to desk] But what I find unbelievable is that this is the only reference in this whole document to the health and safety concerns of the nuclear waste [points to a single, one-line footnote].

VDB: Now this would be a footnote on page —

Symington: It’s a one-line footnote on page 69. This is a page in the report that lists the advantages and disadvantages of nuclear, and in a footnote to “Other Health and Safety Concerns,” the footnote reads, “Includes concerns associated with radiation, groundwater contamination (for example, tritium), and emergency preparedness.”

VDB: Now this is a 250-page energy plan —

Symington: Jim Douglas’s draft energy plan.

VDB: — and so the safety of the waste is one footnote.

Symington: [Sitting back down] Now, there are legitimate concerns about the price of power, and the predictability of power. What I hear from the business community is that it’s as much about the predictability as it is about the price. These swings are devastating to their ability to match their pricing with what their inherent costs are, especially for heavy users, like the ski areas, and IBM and other manufacturers.

You know, when you paint this picture, when you set out a plan that sets out in this direction [where nuclear is an indispensable component] then you’re building a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because we haven’t built the smart grid that we need.

The other part of your question was, what is my plan, how would I approach this. For me it all comes down to the need for a real energy plan. On Vermont Yankee, what I’m seeing — and I’m often misheard on this, so I’m going to say it carefully — is one, we need to know what is the status of this plant. We need a legitimate, outside, independent look at this plant’s reliability and safety. And that’s why we set up the [Comprehensive Vertical] Audit. And that’s why I was pretty careful about who I chose as my appointee to the Commission, to the oversight panel.

VDB: Now Douglas has come out and criticized both your appointee [Peter Bradford] and Peter Shumlin’s [Arnie Gundersen] —

Symington: Sure, in a very predictable way, and you could make the same criticism in return for his appointee.

VDB: Do you think this is an attempt to pre-frame a dismissal of the Commission’s eventual findings?

Symington: Sure. But I believe that someone who sat on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission over a period of time when 20 nuclear power plants were approved should have some level of credibility. Basically, I’m hearing criticism from the Windham County Coalition, you know, for that very reason. “You appointed somebody who approved nuclear power plants in the past?” I’m getting it from both sides, in terms of that appointee. But I spoke with him, and I asked a lot of people about their experiences working with Peter Bradford.

So, one, independent assessment. Two, if it’s not reliable, if it’s not safe, shut it down now [finger tapping table to emphasize each word]. If it is safe, put together a real plan for getting off that power within the next 5 to 10 years. Once again [Chuckling] I get screamed at by the Left and the Right, or by Windham County and Chittenden County, depending on how you want to divide the world, for both. “It can’t be only 10 years!” or “What are you talking about having it run for 10 more years!” But I’m recognizing the fact that we are backed up against a wall, and we have to be real about getting off this power.

The aspect of it, though, is this: unless we start to let the market price work [for power], we’re never going to get off our over-reliance on Vermont Yankee. So what I’m working through is — and I have conversations with people ahead of me — what we need to do is take the Vermont Yankee price, you know we negotiate a very good price, but have some of that go towards the Clean Energy Development Fund. We’ve got to get serious about building our capacity in other areas, in a smart grid, in wind energy, and energy efficiency.

VDB: You’re saying that if Vermonters put you in office, you’ll be on a timeline to shut the plant down in 5 to 10 years, if not sooner.

Symington: Yes. Well, it depends — if it’s judged to be not safe, then you shut it down now. That’s the part that Windham County needs to hear me say.

VDB: One last area to cover. You were an early supporter of Hillary Clinton, and now you’re an out-front supporter of Barack Obama. Your website makes that clear.

Symington: I was an early supporter of both, but I endorsed Hillary.

VDB: Right. At this point, what’s your take on what’s come to be called the “Unity Question” in the Democratic Party, as regards Hillary supporters and Obama supporters? Do you think Vermonters specifically and maybe Americans generally are making that move to come together, at about the right pace?

the crowd, huddled

Symington: That’s my experience. I mean, it was no trouble for me. I had a very hard time making a choice originally. I find Barack Obama totally inspiring, and I found it amusing to hear all the appreciation for his approach and his language around bringing people together and finding common ground, when that was an aspect of my leadership style that I’ve gotten so much grief over [Laughing] from those same people who found him so attractive for those same reasons [Stops to laugh it out].

VDB: [Laughing too] Any names you want to throw out?

Symington: [Stops laughing] Um, no. I really went back and forth on who to support a number of times. But my experience is that people were really thrilled, and we were really thrilled, to have two such wonderful candidates. And now people are very much coming together around Barack Obama. And I think there’ll be an interesting shift as his message shifts to one for the general election, as opposed to the primary. I already sense that to some extent.

But I think people are so relieved, just to have someone with such a sense of vision, bringing people together, knowing where we’re going.

VDB: And maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that one of your own biggest hopes in this three-way election has to be that the Obama campaign increases turn-out to historical levels, to the point where it boosts you, the Democrat in this race, past Jim Douglas in a way that other Democrats haven’t been able to manage.

Symington: Yeah, I don’t think there’s any way of predicting how that works. I certainly think it isn’t hurting my candidacy. There’s just a ton of energy coming into this election cycle, and I think there’s a lot less excitement over the same-old same-old. And the other aspect is — there are a number of people who have said to me, in all different ways, “Great, I get to vote for both Obama and a woman leader.”

VDB: You.

Symington: [Nodding] Yes.

VDB: I hadn’t quite thought of it in those terms, but that’s exactly right.

Symington: For people who are letting go of what they saw, the inspiration they felt in having a woman President, they have the option of voting for an inspiring guberna —[Catches herself] Presidential candidate in Barack Obama and a woman leader with experience as Governor.

VDB: An inspiring woman leader for Governor. [Pause] You can’t say that about yourself, can you?

Symington: I think I came pretty close, Philip.

July 8th, 2008

In Which VDB Watches Democrats and Progressives Botch The Most Predictable Question of 2008: Sexual Predators

by Philip Baruth

When your friends ask why you spend your time surfing political blogs rather than resurfacing the driveway or bleaching the bathroom grout, you tend to freeze up, babble, apologize even. But there’s no need. Tell them you read political blogs because it allows you to read tomorrow’s news today. Or even July’s news in March.

A brilliant case in point. Back in March, VDB sat down with Anthony Pollina, then the only candidate on the Left officially in the race against Douglas. We tried our level best to warn him about the classic Douglas two-note campaign strategy, as seen in the exchange below.

* * *

VDB: Okay. That’s great. Let me just go to the second note of the two-note Jim Douglas re-election strategy. The first note is the series of ads accusing the opponent of being a wild-eyed tax-addict.

The second is to pick up on some hot-button local security issue. So in his first run, against Doug Racine, it was heroin, and what he called “a Megan’s Law for drug dealers.” What Douglas said in that race was simple: “We need a Megan’s law for drug dealers, because heroin is here, it’s scary, and our children need to be protected.”

And what Racine was saying was that we didn’t need a law like this, that we were doing pretty much okay on the problem as it stood. Not hard to see how Douglas might pick up that final 8 or 9% he needed among last-minute deciders.

Then it was sexual predators, and civil commitment. On civil commitment [holding sex offenders past the stated term of their sentence], Scudder Parker got crunched in precisely the same way: essentially arguing for the status quo on a hot-button issue, while Douglas dropped his voice into low register and said, “Look, we need to protect our children, and I’ll go that extra step.”

Now, you know you’re going to be running up against that —

Pollina: Sure.

VDB: — it’s just yet to be framed yet, what this tough-on-crime issue will be. And when that happens, as with the tax argument, I’m assuming you’re already thinking through how to make the argument on it that you want to make. Without going into the fear mongering aspect of it, how do you plan to make that affirmative argument yourself, that a Pollina administration will not see criminals loosed in the streets . . .

* * *

Predictably enough, Pollina answered our question with a long discourse on early public education, almost entirely ignoring the real thrust of the question, which was this: when Douglas begins to thunder about sexual predation and civil commitment, how will you prevent yourself from losing this election?

We tried several times to follow up, but Pollina refused to let himself be drawn away from liberal orthodoxy on the issue.

And in this morning’s Herald, right on schedule, is a nice article by Louis Porter, in which Douglas and Dubie use the Brooke Bennett killing to argue for tougher, longer mandatory sentences for such depraved crimes (“Dubie Starts Push For Longer Sentences”).

groundhog day, the comedy

VDB feels like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, to put it mildly. Of course, Murray learned something important over the course of his infinite imprisonment in Punxsutawney, and he was finally allowed to score with Andie MacDowell and go home.

But the Center-Left has learned absolutely nothing about Jim Douglas, and the way to win a statewide race for Governor. Nothing.

The proof? Dick Sears and Gaye Symington, now herself a full-time candidate for Governor, spend their time in Porter’s article making what Symington admits is the “counter-intuitive” case against tough mandatory sentences for criminals like those who killed Brooke Bennett.

Sure, Sears and Symington have an intellectual case to make, predicated on the idea that such mandatory minimums give killers more incentive to go to trial, where they sometimes go free.

the crowd, huddled

But recent history couldn’t be any more plain-spoken: Jim Douglas will win this election talking up a Vermont version of Jessica’s Law. To put it into context, it is the exact same strategy he used in his first race, where he thundered about a Meghan’s Law for drugdealers, and erased Doug Racine’s ten-point lead in the final week.

The Governor has only changed the name, people.

One word. It is the exact same strategy. He will always find some Law to promote, with the name of some poor unfortunate girlchild attached to it.

And the Democratic response, in this case, is not counter-intuitive. It’s suicidal.

And suicide, when you’ve done it three or four times running, isn’t painless. Not by a long shot.

July 8th, 2008

The Unbearable Realness of Wall-E

by Philip Baruth

Announcer: For Commentator Philip Baruth, summer blockbusters are like Christmas fruitcakes: not very enjoyable, but at least they let you know what month it is. Philip went to see Pixar’s animated tale Wall-E and found it just so-so. That is, until life began to imitate art. And then he had the time of his life.

Notes from the New Vermont
Commentary #217: The Unbearable Realness of Wall-E

By now you’ll have heard and read all the glowing reviews of Pixar’s summer blockbuster, Wall-E. It’s the story of a trash-disposal robot left on Earth once humans have rendered it uninhabitable and migrated out into space. Over the centuries, Wall-E watches old Hollywood films and comes to realize that he’s missing a leading lady.

Wall-E’s been compared to Kubrick, and to Mack Sennet and Charlie Chaplin. That’s probably why I was so disappointed for much of the film, but it wasn’t just the hype.

For me, Wall-E took the all the charms of Pixar’s short animated films — the lack of dialogue, the plucky characters and violent slapstick — and it tried to stretch those diminutive charms to feature-length.

Which turned out to be about an hour longer than they could really bear.

The result — and I know I’m in the minority on this one — the result is an occasionally winning film that comes to feel not just repetitive, but a little desperate in its attempts to keep the silent non-human characters in jeopardy.

There was one part of the film I loved, though. The human race, it turns out, hasn’t found another planet; they’re just orbiting out in space, being pampered by their robot servants, floating on what look like a cross between hovercraft and Barkaloungers, watching virtual sports and drinking their sickly sweet meals out of Big Gulp cups.

It’s nicely drawn satire, and once Wall-E and his love interest Eve make their way to the floating ark, the movie became much more watchable.

Why? Mostly because we get to watch these human doughballs, who haven’t walked or swung a bat in hundreds of years, get off their airborne couches and attempt to take back their lives. It’s played for laughs, but the satire is also close enough to the bone to be heartbreaking.

That’s when I really started to enjoy myself, ten minutes from the end. And that, of course, is when the film broke.

Seriously, in the theater where I saw Wall-E, the film suddenly doubled up on itself, with the bottom on the top half of the screen, and vice versa. Then it just quit altogether, and ads for local health clubs and restaurants started playing.

Finally the lights came up, and there I was, sitting slouched way down in my seat, with my oversized box of Raisinettes resting on my stomach, and a large tub of popcorn wedged into the seat next to me.

Everyone in the theater was looking around too, wondering what to do, everyone nibbling a little candy or drinking a little soda to kill the anxiety. After all the satire about over-eating and over-viewing we’d just seen, nobody especially wanted to make eye contact, and people kept their Starbursts and Goobers down low.

And then, after a few more minutes, the lights dimmed, and the film picked up where it left off, and Pixar’s summer blockbuster came to its highly predictable conclusion. But the best part, bar none, was the moment when the film stopped, and all of us were forced to look at ourselves in light of the satire we’d just seen.

It made me wonder, all of the sudden, if what looked like the film breaking was itself a deliberate Pixar effect, with everyone in theaters all over America forced into the same four minutes of surreal self-scrutiny.

Now, that would be genius.

[This piece aired first on Vermont Public Radio. Audio of the commentary is available here.]

July 8th, 2008

Obama Acceptance Speech Moved to Football Stadium, Pumping Up Volume on Both History and Doomsday Memes

by Philip Baruth

Remember how we’ve been tracking a certain ominous sub-narrative in the coverage of the Democratic Convention out in Denver? A storyline in which the making of history doubles somehow as violence in the making?

Well, our worrying days are behind us now, baby: the Obama camp has the Senator’s acceptance speech to a 75,000 seat football stadium with “security challenges,” and the Denver police won’t quite confirm that they’ve beefed up their arsenal with “science fiction weapons,” like a “goo gun” that wraps its target in a “rubbery gelatin mass.”

Imagine VDB’s relief. Now, if we can just get a group of Hell’s Angels to work security, we’ll be ready to rock.

July 8th, 2008

New McCain Flip-Flop on Budget Further Evidence of Manly Fortitude, Consistency

by Philip Baruth

Not to nit-pick, but after a week or two of “Is Obama About to Suffer the Fate of John Kerry, Flip-Flopper?” articles, you get a bit nit-picky: John McCain today pledged to balance the budget by the end of his first term. Problem being that he promised the same thing last year, before “abandoning” the pledge to promise deep tax cuts in April.

So here you have a Presidential candidate who pledged to balance the budget, then reversed himself to pander to fiscal yahoos on the Right, and who has now re-reversed himself to get right with serious fiscal conservatives for the General.

How does the Post slug the story? “McCain Pledges a Balanced Budget” graces the front page. Jump to the Caucus, the blog carrying the post, and you get the slightly more nuanced “McCain Reverts to Balanced Budget Pledge.”

Excuse VDB for living, but doesn’t that still give the guy quite the benefit of the doubt, in that “reverting” to a “pledge” sounds as though there’s still a binding promise being made, if belatedly? Especially since the proposed balancing mechanism boils down to winning wars that McCain has said elsewhere may take 50 or 100 years?

What about something closer to the bone? Like: “McCain Shoots For Third Position on Budget; Seems Not to Understand Concepts of Pledge, Balance, or Budget.”

And of course, at the jump page: “One Unnamed Print Reporter Pees Pants In Effort to Keep Straight Face, Loses Seat On Straight Talk Express; Campaign Denies Retaliation, Cites ‘Health Concerns.’”

Anything like that would work for us, really.

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