December 22nd, 2006

How Jim Douglas Got Religion on Global Warming, Saved a State, and Thrilled an Entire Nation [Cue Up, “Kumbaya”]

by Philip Baruth

The secrets to Jim Douglas’s success are not, in fact, secret. They’re out in plain view, and generally speaking they don’t produce a lot of hand-wringing here at VDB.

douglas hearts dickSecret #1: In a very liberal state or city, the Executive often succeeds to the extent that s/he projects order, stability and fiscal discipline.

Given that the GOP has long been associated in the public mind with at least two of these issues, Republicans do surprisingly well in highly liberal areas, often serving multiple terms.

Examples: New York City (see, Giuliani, Rudy), Massachusetts (Weld, William), and Vermont (Douglas, Jim).

How to explain the 10-year reign of Howard Dean?

Dean was viewed with some genuine suspicion by members of the Democratic Party for much of his time in office, because he made a public point of stressing fiscal discipline, sometimes to the exclusion of a more progressive agenda.

Dean sister-souljahed Democrats on a regular and predictable basis, in other words.

As we say, this “law-and-order” effect is no secret. And Democrats should work hard to address the pre-established frames disadvantaging them in this dynamic, no question.

But it’s hard to blame Douglas for taking advantage of this dynamic, for playing it well. He wins re-election by selecting one hot-button law-and-order issue (heroin, sexual predators) and running one ad insinuating that his opponent can’t hold his fiscal water.

It’s quick, cheap, and predictably effective.

And if VDB were Jim Douglas, we’d do precisely the same thing.

But there is another secret.douglas fishing

Secret #2: Because a Governor or a President signs legislation, reporters will eventually credit them with both its origin and its passage. This effect has nothing to do with short attention spans; excellent reporters eventually fall into the same trap.

Why? Because broad-brush history is easier to write, and tastier to consume.

Examples: Last year’s Catamount Health bill (which the AARP’s house magazine infamously attributed to the tireless efforts of Douglas).

For a rare glimpse into the workings of this last effect, take the issue of global warming. By placing global warming at the top of his Senate to-do list, Peter Shumlin defied the conventional wisdom, defined the legislative agenda, and defined himself — as a more courageous and committed leader than some might have expected.

It was a bold move, and a canny move.

And on December 8, under the headline, “State Lawmakers Ready to Tackle Warming,” the Free Press wrote a well-researched and accurate piece about Shumlin’s reframing of the issues:

“Peter Shumlin sounds more like a preacher than a politician when he talks about why global climate change must top the Lgislature’s agenda in 2007.”

And midway through the piece, reporter Candace Page fleshes out Douglas’s position:

“Gov. Jim Douglas declined this week to say what climate-change proposals he will offer. He said he is ready to work with lawmakers, but would be reluctant to support any policy change that would raise the cost of living in Vermont.

“For example, he said, he would continue to oppose any gasoline tax increase, and probably a gas-guzzler tax, because Vermonters are so dependent on their cars.”

As is his wont, Douglas brings to the table no options, no policy rubric; his only additions to the process are subtractions, and pre-emptive negations.

But here’s where the magic kicks in. crombie, puppet

Today, only two weeks later, the Herald’s Louis Porter all but re-reframes the issue as a Douglas initiative, in the course of reporting the hiring of Crombie to head up the Agency of Natural Resources.

“The agency is in the middle of a ‘rethinking’ process, which will determine if large-scale changes should be made in agency operations; farms are struggling with new rules on agricultural pollution; and Douglas and members of the Legislature are considering the best way for Vermonters to reduce greenhouse gases in the face of global warming.”

The truth is that Douglas’s main contribution to the debate thus far has been to praise the unseasonably warm weather — for sparing the Low Income Heating Program fund.

But after reading today’s Rutland Herald, anyone not paying attention might be excused for believing that it was Douglas, rather than Shumlin, forwarding the issue.

Which is to say that in a year and a half, Douglas will be telling audiences around the state the story — Shumlin’s story — of how he shot deer in his t-shirt and got religion on global warming.

And audiences will applaud, and no one will bat an eye.