Politico Pooh-Poohs Politics

Vermont Public Radio and Vermont Public Television have announced a series of broadcast debates in advance of our August primary. The big news: Gov. Phil Scott is not listed as a participant in the Republican gubernatorial debate on July 22. Only his little-known challengers — John Klar, Emily Peyton and Douglas Cavett will take part.

Blockbuster ratings, I’m sure.

Scott’s absence is no surprise; he has said that he will abstain from politics as long as we’re battling the coronavirus. He simply can’t spare the time for a debate. I’m sure many people will see that as a proper and noble stance.

Well, yes and no.

Here’s the thing. Phil Scott is a politician. Has been since his first run for state Senate in 2000. He holds an elective office. Part of the deal is re-applying for the position — going back to the voters and making a case for why he should continue in office. And as long as he sticks to his full-time Covid-fighting claim, he won’t be doing that part of his job.

Is that really okay? I don’t think so.

To begin with, I’m skeptical that he can’t spare any time at all. Is he working 60, 80, 100 hours a week? Sleeping in his office? Perpetually on call? Or is he one step removed — making major decisions but allowing his officials to do the daily grindwork of putting his policies into practice?

Second, is he still as deeply involved as he was at the crisis’ peak, when everything was shutting down and we faced a frightening array of unknowns? He and his officials constantly assure us that, although continued vigilance is needed, things are fairly well under control. Just this week, he cut back his press briefing schedule from three days a week to two. Doesn’t he have a bit more time on his hands by now?

And third, see above. He holds an elective office, he’s answerable to the voters every two years. If he continues to abstain, he is doing us a disservice.

“Politics” has a bad name. But it’s also essential to our system of government.

At their best, campaigns are contests of ideas, a proving ground for candidates. Campaigns are opportunities for candidates to prove their worth, and for voters to gather the information they need to make informed choices. In the Republican primary, perpetual fringe candidate Peyton and convicted sex offender Cavett can be dismissed, but Klar presents a real alternative for Republican voters. Sure, he’s little known and has virtually no chance; but if he can’t debate Scott, he has zero chance.

And if you’re willing to give him a pass on the primary, what about the general election? If Scott continues to opt out of campaigning, if he refuses to debate a serious Democratic challenger, isn’t that problematic?

Scott does the democratic system no favors when he uses “politics” as an epithet, as he did this week in reference to Senate President Pro Tem (and candidate for lieutenant governor) Tim Ashe. The latter had requested (or as press reports put it, “demanded”) creation of a broadly inclusive task force on reopening the public schools this fall.

A task force. If governing processes were breakfast foods, a task force would be Cream of Wheat. Bland, mushy, inoffensive, good fiber content. But in Scott’s view, Ashe’s idea was beyond the pale.

“This is politics, it’s a campaign year,” the governor added. “There’s a series of elections in November and August, so I’ll leave it at that.”

Real talk, Ashe isn’t the one making a political point — Scott is, by casting aspersions on a relatively reasonable (indeed, relatively content-free) call for full, open discussion of a complex issue that touches the vast majority of Vermonters.

There’s a pattern here. Whenever Scott faces criticism or opposition or an idea he didn’t think of himself, he cries POLITICS. Several weeks ago, he refused to answer a question about potential spending in Vermont by the Republican Governors Association, asserting that it was an improper query at a Covid briefing.

Problem is, he’s answered a lot of non-Covid questions at these briefings. He just doesn’t answer the ones he doesn’t like.

And politics is his excuse. You may say it’s a principled focus on the big issue facing Vermont. I say it’s a convenient Get Out Of Jail Free card he plays whenever it suits him.

There is still time for him to fulfill the political obligations of his position. But time grows short, especially for the August primary. He should devote some fraction of his time to engaging his opponents and presenting his ideas and his record to his bosses — the people of Vermont.

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