Politics & Policy

The Greenest State

Vermont holds a costly election that looks to be disappointingly mundane.

In Vermont last weekend, it was possible to ignore politics for a few hours. In fact, it was easy. On Saturday, volunteers were out walking the roads to pick up the trash that had accumulated over the winter. Green Up Day, as it is called, is one of the charming traditions of this little state. Vermonters are nearly compulsive about volunteering. It is a church-supper kind of place and that’s how things get done. We even have a semi-professional legislature, though it is hard to believe that it will stay that way much longer. The political class lusts after “solutions” to one crisis or another, and that requires a body of full-time lawmakers, just like, God help us, the ones in Washington.

But that day is not yet here, and on Sunday, if you ignored the political talk shows and went outside to garden or fish or walk up into the woods, it was the farthest thing from your mind. A poet might have called the weather “heavenly.” A high, brilliantly blue sky with a little breeze, just cool enough that you thought of putting on a sweater before deciding against it. The trees were just beginning to leaf out and the birds were singing robustly. It was, in short, a day for other things.

Nevertheless, it would be back to business, and reality, on Monday. The (Democratic) legislature has passed a health care bill which advances the single-payer cause through a series of measures that are both stealthy and intricate. It has long seemed that these believers in nationalized medical care intend to get there by making the current system harder to figure out than Chinese arithmetic. Eventually, a baffled, confused, and exhausted electorate will just say “the hell with it,” and let the government take over.

Vermont’s health care “crisis” was caused by the state government, which makes one just a bit skeptical of Montpelier’s ability to solve it. (Not that this would deter them from trying.) Twenty years ago, most people in the state could afford some kind of coverage. But the lawmakers began chasing the insurance companies out of the state. They were selling a product that people were buying, and in Vermont, that can be a dangerous thing to do. A certain kind of Vermonter–highly political and generally a Democrat when not a Progressive–is offended by this practice and will use the legislature to put a stop to it. The state campaign against the insurance companies was exceedingly successful. In my own case, two different companies wrote to say they were dropping my coverage. Sorry, but they just couldn’t do business in Vermont any more. So I now have expensive insurance that covers me and my share of the people who can’t afford it but still go to the hospital for treatment when they are sick. And still there’s a crisis.

Governor Jim Douglas, a Republican, is threatening a veto. If he follows through, then the Democrats will tell the voters that there hasn’t been health care “reform” in Vermont because the governor, like all Republicans, hates sick people and wants them to suffer, and maybe even die, so he can cut taxes for rich people.

That campaign is already starting, as is the intriguing contest between Bernie Sanders and Rich Tarrant for the Senate seat currently held by James Jeffords. For the last couple of months, Tarrant has been spending a lot of money on soft-focus, warm and fuzzy television commercials. He has a lot of money to spend–so much that he isn’t taking contributions. He’s picking up the check himself, and by the time the dust has settled, he will have spent at least $5 million. Sanders does take contributions–from organized labor, trial lawyers, and individuals who are moved by the old-time Progressive politics he peddles. People are saying he will spend as much as $3 million. Measured by the cost per vote, this might turn out to be the priciest election in U.S. history.

Tarrant recently aired a new television commercial. It wasn’t exactly hard-hitting, but it wasn’t the hearts and flowers stuff he’d been putting out, either. He took a couple of jabs at Sanders. The issue was, again, health care.

Tarrant said, essentially, that unlike himself, Sanders was for letting the government take care of it. Sanders, whose skin is so thin that light will pass through it, reacted with his customary humorless indignation. His campaign spokesman said Tarrant was telling lies just like they’d been saying he would once he finished telling the voters what a nice guy he was. The Sanders campaign produced documents that showed its man was for a single payer system run by the states and that he has always been letting people choose their own doctors, contrary to Tarrant’s charges.

Sanders plainly believes there is some traction in charging Tarrant with “negative campaigning” and peddling himself as its victim. Yet this pose of wounded virtue doesn’t quit fit him. Sanders has always sold himself as a fearless, bare-knuckle fighter on the side of the common man. In his universe, there are the honest, hard-working people and those who exploit them. Bernie is the tireless protector of the little man, and unlike the spineless pols from the two major political parties, he is not afraid of a fight.

Crying “foul” over a fairly tepid Tarrant ad doesn’t exactly come off as the act of a political brawler. If Sanders were the street-fighting defender of the weak that he claims to be, he wouldn’t be whining; he would be kneeing Tarrant in the groin. With six months to go before the election, one devoutly hopes this will not be a campaign full of phony indignation about dirty campaigning and fastidious alarm over negative ads.

We could get that for half the money.

Geoffrey Norman writes for NRO and other publications.

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