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Redefining the liberal agenda

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Posted on August 31, 2009 |
By Angelo Lynn



If political change is in the air following Gov. James Douglas’ decision not to seek re-election, it would seem that the race for governor is the Democrats’ to lose.

But lose they will if their agenda is seen by Vermonters as so liberal that the state simply cannot afford a party that seeks to expand government programs and will not be shy about raising taxes to pay for them.

Because liberals will largely dictate the party’s primary process, they and their moderate supporters must anticipate that the Republican Party will nominate a candidate who is much like Douglas on fiscal policies and who champions job growth and economic development as the party’s primary objective. That will be an effective campaign in these times, and will likely trump a liberal candidate who pushes a single-payer health care system, short-sighted environmental goals, and increased taxes as a way to resolve the deteriorating condition of the state’s fiscal affairs. It will simply be too easy for the GOP to paint liberals as offering nothing but a tax-and-spend program in tough economic times.

To that end, what is desperately needed within both the Democratic and Progressive parties is a statewide conversation to revamp their parties’ platforms to fit today’s fiscal reality. They need to set new priorities and explain why those priorities will stimulate prosperity within a progressive framework.

While Democrats and Progressives include economic development and fiscal discipline as positions within their platforms, neither position is championed by party leaders nor are they couched in progressive terms.

Just last week, leaders of the state Progressive party outlined three points they said must be embraced by a Democrat to win their party’s support — otherwise they would consider nominating a candidate of their own and splitting the liberal vote in another three-way race. Those three points included: adopting a single-payer health care system; opposing Vermont Yankee’s continued operation of its nuclear power plant; and finding a solution to the financial problems with the state pension plan and the unemployment compensation system.

All three positions will most likely raise statewide taxes and power rates — regardless of the positive aspects that might also be realized — and will push many moderate Vermonters into the Republican fold.

The question moderates and liberals must ask is not whether these issues have merit (they do), but whether they are the most pressing issues of the day and will the debate of those issues provide the most benefit to the state.

Let’s consider the three issues:

Single-payer health care reform: With President Barack Obama pressing ahead with a federal health care plan, and Vermont already at risk of losing its investment in health care programs by being so far ahead of the national curve, is pressing forward with a single-payer system really the smartest move for a state the size of a medium-size city? Hardly. We don’t disagree the issue is important, but the answer lies in a federal plan, not a state one. Vermonters are better off to focus their limited resources on issues where the return is demonstrable and to our benefit.

Opposing Vermont Yankee: The focus is far too narrow and naive. Vermont’s economy requires a reliable source of affordable energy. If we support policies that drive energy prices skyward, we chase away industry and jobs and drive more people out of the state. A more enlightened platform would focus first on developing alternative energy as a means to augment the baseload power (power that is uninterruptible) that is required by our utilities, and to drive more energy conservation programs. We need to deal with the transmission issues, which are unavoidable if we are to make progress on any front. Once those objectives are met, we can talk about decommissioning Vermont Yankee.

Fiscal responsibility: Finding a solution to the state’s faltering pension plan and unemployment compensation system is essential and will be a necessary part of the upcoming debate, but it won’t be the campaign’s focal point. Rather, it’s a trap for liberals if the answer is simply to increase the tax burden on the state’s business community.

What issues are more pressing to Vermonters and offer progressive solutions?

Try these three:

Education: Boldly revise the state’s educational system with one goal in mind: Make certain Vermont students get an education that gives them a leg-up in a knowledge-based economy. One third of Vermont’s students aren’t getting an education that allows them to earn a livable wage; yet we have a lack of qualified candidates for available jobs. Let’s advocate a longer school day and/or a longer school year to maximize the value of our existing school infrastructure and prepare our students for the high-tech jobs of the future. Let’s develop affordable higher education opportunities (perhaps implement the two-year junior college system other states offer), and drastically reduce the numbers of high school students who either drop out or do not go on to higher education. (This also solves a host of other social ills.) Yes, this will cost more money, but let’s discuss ways to shift costs within the system and make it happen.

• Let’s put more state resources into developing “green energy” jobs and enhanced conservation efforts. Providing affordable and reliable energy for the next 20 to 30 years is one of the most important issues of the day and one that offers real possibilities of change; and there are good jobs in this emerging market. Progressives should be leading the way and doing it now.

• In the mold of President Bill Clinton, let’s focus on fiscally responsible spending that also grows the economy. That may include increased taxation, but any increases (gas taxes come to mind) would be used to build needed state infrastructure that, in turn, builds the state’s economy.

The over-arching theme of the campaign would be providing jobs that provide a livable wage to Vermonters. It is ironic that Vermont leads the nation in programs that provide for our citizens (children’s wellness, comprehensive health care and many other social programs that care for those in need), yet we fall far behind in cultivating good-paying jobs. If liberals looked at the issue as pro-jobs (workers) rather than pro-business (owners), it’s a progressive cause that should be high on the liberal agenda. Sadly, it’s smothered by the sexier issues of advocating for single-payer health care and opposing Vermont Yankee — two naïve and impractical goals that, quite frankly, put the state’s liberal movement in jeopardy.

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