July 25th, 2007

2008 Governor’s Race: The State of Play

by Philip Baruth

Full props to Terri Hallenbeck for yesterday’s run-down on the inert state of the 2008 race for Governor. The piece evidenced a lot of leg work, finally pulling negatives from a lot of public figures who might have liked to let speculation percolate for a while longer.

douglas won't let go

In 2004, for reasons that remain unclear, Jim Douglas ultimately refused to let go of this man’s award.

It was also satisfying, frankly, because it bore out the math we’ve been working on for quite a while now: that in the absence of someone highly compelling and currently completely off the radar, the nominations for Governor and Lieutenant Governor would seem to be Bill Sorrell’s and Matt Dunne’s for the taking, respectively.

The key graf:

“Only Attorney General William Sorrell and former state Sen. Matt Dunne hedged their comments. Dunne said he won’t make any such decisions until fall, though many expect he’ll run for lieutenant governor as he did in 2006. Sorrell didn’t directly say he wouldn’t run, but he did say, ‘It’s something I think about, but it’s not something that is a driving force in my life day in and day out.’”

Why not Dunne for Governor?

Because it’s difficult, if not impossible, to lose a statewide race and trade up in the next go-round. Voters tend not to like it, whether in Vermont or Virginia.

And a hasty run for Governor would validate the only persistent criticism of Dunne we heard voiced last cycle: that he was over-ambitious somehow, too hungry too soon.

A second run for Lieutenant Governor, on the other hand, would bear out the counter-argument Dunne himself began making to Vermonters two years ago: that if he has advanced quickly in state politics, it is because he works hard, bets smart, and never quits.

All of which is to say that the ball is in Sorrell’s court.

Much has been made about the folly of taking on Jim Douglas this time out, because Vermonters never throw out an incumbent, because Douglas makes few mistakes, because this, that or the other risk-averse thing.

To which VDB has a one-word answer: bollocks.

This will be a Presidential year, 2008, and Democrats will be hungry for the White House. They will be as inclined as they have been in eight long years of Bush-rule to come home to the Party.

And the last we checked, Douglas only remains in office because Democrats haven’t seen much urgency in disposing matters otherwise.

But they very well may now.

Jim Douglas has been shockingly ineffective on a wide array of issues this past term, stumbling badly in the Bennington sick-building crisis, for instance. And that was before the highly-publicized vetoes regarding campaign finance and climate change.

It needs saying again: Jim Douglas is no ball of fire, no Clintonian shaman on the stump. He retains his job because Democrats have not offered a candidate and a campaign to match the powers of incumbency.

douglas, reading

His is a negative gubernatorial legacy in more ways than one.

But all of this becomes moot if Democrats do not field a firm slate well before Christmas. If the new year comes and goes without a serious publicly declared challenge, the opportunity will be gone.

In 1991, the smart Democratic talent, people like Mario Cuomo, took a pass on challenging George Bush Senior. They cited the President’s towering poll numbers, his triumph in the Gulf War.

Bill Clinton looked at Bush and saw a man whose political skills were not nearly as strong as his reputation. Clinton saw a guy without much of an agenda to call his own.

A guy he could open up like a soft peanut.

And that, as Frost liked to say, has made all the difference.