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A tale of two debates

A gubernatorial debate in Vermont offered evidence that it is, in fact, possible for Democrats and Republicans to behave like adults.

Governor Phil Scott (left) and Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman.
Governor Phil Scott (left) and Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman.Wilson Ring/Lisa Rathke/Associated Press

Like millions of Americans, my wife and I sat down Tuesday night to watch the first presidential debate, in this, the autumn of our nation’s discontent.

My wife has always had a stronger stomach than me, so it was little surprise she toughed it out while, 15 minutes into the debacle, I got up from the couch to go do something more productive — pairing my socks and flossing twice as long as usual before going to bed.

There is nothing quite as depressing as watching two old guys shout variations of “Get off my lawn!” at each other for 90 minutes, except perhaps realizing that one of them will be sworn in as president in January.


Of course, it goes without saying that President Trump was by far the worse of the two, but that’s beside the point. We know what he is. He just reaffirmed it, in horrifying, real-time, cringe-inducing fashion. He managed to pull Joe Biden down toward but not quite into his gutter, provoking Biden into calling him a racist, a clown, and the worst president ever. All arguably true, but not exactly presidential.

If, against all better judgment, they go ahead with the two remaining scheduled debates, I’d suggest placing electrified dog collars on the necks of the two participants, then handing the moderator a remote so he or she can tell them, finger poised on the trigger, “Try me.”

If that doesn’t work, tasers should do the trick.

Earlier that night, the Vermont gubernatorial debate between Phil Scott, the Republican incumbent, and David Zuckerman, the Democratic/Progressive challenger, provided a striking contrast to what would happen just hours later on a national stage.

You know you’re watching a Vermont gubernatorial debate when one of the guys running for governor has a pony tail.


But that’s selling Zuckerman a bit short. He’s also the lieutenant governor, a farmer, and by many accounts a fine fellow.

While Vermont is one of the most liberal states in the union, Zuckerman has the unenviable task of trying to unseat a very popular two-term governor in Phil Scott. Even before the pandemic, Scott was popular with Democrats. His aggressive policies to limit the spread of COVID-19 have led to Vermont having the lowest infection and death rates in the country, only enhancing his popularity. The latest poll has him up 2 to 1.

Scott is one of those old-style New England Republicans who don’t like high taxes but don’t care who you fall in love with. He didn’t vote for Trump and regularly denounces the leader of his own party.

“I appreciate that you have gently stood up to President Trump,” Zuckerman said, before criticizing Scott for not being aggressive enough on climate change.

Both candidates emphasized their belief in bipartisanship. Zuckerman pushed back against Scott’s claim that he was too enamored with taxes, saying he has tried to formulate policies and programs that wouldn’t require additional taxes, in deference to Scott’s position. Scott replied, “I appreciate that.”

The tone was so entirely different, and civilized, compared to the presidential debate that would follow. You could actually hear what the two candidates believe in. They treated each other, and the moderator, with respect. They never raised their voices.

The debate was held at the rustic Mad River Barn in Waitsfield, which like many venues in the hospitality industry, has suffered mightily during the pandemic. The moderator, Anne Galloway, editor of the VTDigger news site which sponsored the debate, did not have to go Chris Wallace on either candidate. They didn’t constantly interrupt each other.


The few times they spoke over each other, it appeared accidental.

“Might I answer the question?” Zuckerman asked politely when Scott interrupted him.

“Sure,” said Scott, who then listened patiently.

Both candidates accepted that the other was acting in good faith.

“We’re moving in the same direction," Scott said to Zuckerman at one point. "We just have different approaches to getting there.”

After an hour, the debate ended with Galloway thanking the candidates. They turned toward each other and clapped.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.