As Goes Vermont, So Goes the Nation?

While the Iraq war is off the front pages, and Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama embark on what may well be a scorched-earth primary battle against each other, let's keep our eye on where the real scorched earth lies: who profits and who dies.

Clinton proclaimed in her victory speech in Ohio on March 4, after winning three of the four primary contests that day, "as goes Ohio, so goes the nation." She should take note, however, of how goes Vermont. That state might be a better bellwether, especially concerning the U.S. quagmire in Iraq.

While no one was surprised that Obama beat Clinton in the Vermont primary by a landslide, several details of the Vermont vote bear mention. Vermont's electoral system is based on the town meeting, a storied exercise in direct democracy. In the Vermont town meeting, local issues and ordinances are hashed out in an open forum, with all townspeople who want to speak given time. This is arguably the closest we come in the United States to real democracy. Part of why this is possible is the rural nature of Vermont, which Vermonters prize and protect.

In Brattleboro, the townspeople decided to arrest President George Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, should they visit. (This may be a moot point, as Vermont is the one state out of 50 that George W. Bush has not visited while president.) The question before the people of Brattleboro read: "Shall the Selectboard instruct the Town Attorney to draft indictments against President Bush and Vice President Cheney for crimes against our Constitution, and publish said indictments for consideration by other authorities, and shall it be the law of the town of Brattleboro that the Brattleboro Police, pursuant to the above-mentioned indictments, arrest and detain George Bush and Richard Cheney in Brattleboro if they are not duly impeached, and prosecute or extradite them to other authorities that may reasonably contend to prosecute them?"

The question passed, after a spirited discussion, by a vote of 2,012 for, 1,795 against.

I asked former Gov. Madeleine Kunin, the only woman ever elected to that position in Vermont, what she thought of the vote. Kunin [a Democrat] said: "I support the fact that these communities were able to do that. That's Town Meeting in Vermont. Anything can happen. Would I have voted for it? Probably not. But I do respect their speaking out and taking a stand. I think there are a lot of people in Vermont who are frustrated that there's no impeachment process going on of Bush and Cheney."

Exit polls in Vermont indicated that the Iraq war remains the No. 1 issue concerning people there. And it isn't some knee-jerk liberal position. Vermont, the first state to outlaw slavery, has a long Republican tradition, but one that is fiercely independent, more along the lines of the slogan on the Revolution-era flag: "Don't Tread on Me."

A central reason that the war hits home in Vermont is that the war touches almost everyone there. Vermont has the highest per capita death rate among U.S. service members, more than twice the rate of most other states. People feel the loss, see the suffering, see the businesses fail as family breadwinners are pulled away for years on multiple deployments. And it is in this elemental crucible of democracy, this Norman Rockwell setting, that anger and frustration find voice.

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