What’s Eating Philbert Grape?

This is fine.

Another week, another series of disappointing Covid numbers. Not only the high daily case counts but also hospitalizations, deaths, and a test positivity rate that’s creeping back up toward 3.

Still, I fully expect Gov. Phil Scott to come out swinging at his Tuesday briefing. I’d be shocked if we don’t get a rehash of carefully selected statistics, bland assurances that everything will be just fine anytime now, and denials that any policy changes whatsoever are in order.

After all, Scott spox Jason Maulucci told the Boston Globe on Friday that mask mandates are off the table. His… shall we say… creative reasoning? A mandate would undermine public confidence that Covid vaccines work.

Oh, you want it in his words? Here you go.

“We’re promoting mask wearing, but we don’t want to do anything that would damage the public belief that vaccines work.”

Wow, that’s a stretch worthy of Rose Mary Woods.

(Globe story is paywalled, but I was able to access it via one of the many retweets it got.)

After a very good performance for the first 15 months of the pandemic, Scott’s response to the Delta variant has been stubborn, unyielding, and dismissive of all criticism. He has also, as far as I can remember, failed to express any sympathy or concern for those who have died or become seriously ill or their loved ones. That’s uncharacteristic of him. Would a brief call-out at the top of every presser be too much to ask? Perhaps even a visit to a hospital or a grieving family? He should be capable of that, and it would be a powerful reminder of the essential humanity that’s made Scott an appealing figure to so many.

So what’s going on with our Nice Guy Governor?

There’s been speculation that Scott is tacking rightward because he wants to run for our next Congressional opening. He’d be able to count on near-unlimited backing from the Republican National Committee and any SuperPAC interested in grabbing a “safe” Democratic seat. He’d enjoy a massive edge in name recognition over any Democratic hopeful, and a lot of independents and moderate Democrats are in the habit of voting for him.

It’s got to be tempting. But I’m not convinced that he wants to leave the cozy confines of Vermont. I think it more likely that he’ll serve another term or two, retire in a haze of glory, and go back to running DuBois Construction* and racing Thunder Road.

*”Oh, but he divested his ownership stake!” I hear some of you saying. Well, yeah, but he self-financed a long-term loan with interest-only payments from the “buyer.” He can take back his half-share in two shakes once he leaves office.

Well, if not Congress, then what’s eating Philbert Grape? What makes him so stubborn, so passive-aggressive, so prone to setting up straw men and punching them down?

I think two things. Or maybe two-and-a-half. Caveat: This is my own thinking. I have no insight at all to the governor or his team.

First, Scott is afraid of triggering an economic setback. He doesn’t want to derail business. The vital tourism/hospitality sector is especially vulnerable to mask mandates or restrictions on activities. This is partly a matter of his own belief; the economy has always been his top priority. He’s also playing to his base in the business community, but it is an authentic concern for him.

Second, there’s the inevitable souring of a multi-term administration. No matter how popular, governors always have a sell-by date. The longer you’re in office, the more likely you are to bungle something or face a challenge you can’t surmount. And as top officials inevitably depart for better jobs, your administration becomes more and more dependent on the B-team. Scott has often filled vacancies by promoting from within, and some of those people (coughMichaelHarringtoncough) are less qualified than their predecessors.

But I see this most strongly in Scott’s own attitude. I never thought I’d say this about him because he’s usually so grounded in reality, but there are definite signs that he’s starting to believe his own press clippings. He’s exhibiting a near-complete faith in his own judgment. Nobody’s that good.

Dare I say, he’s beginning to act like Peter Shumlin.

I know, the unkindest cut. Shumlin was the turbocharged example of the incumbent’s hubris. After narrowly winning his first term, he faced a huge crisis in Tropical Storm Irene. He got a great deal of credit for managing the disaster and getting Vermont back on track. But within three years, he’d squandered a Scrooge McDuck-worthy pile of political capital. He’d worn out his welcome, came within an eyelash of being beaten by Scott Milne, the worst major-party gubernatorial candidate I can remember.

I don’t go far enough back to clearly recall the Douglas or Dean administrations, but I know that Dean was widely despised within his own party by the time he left. Douglas gradually lost his deft touch with a Democrat-heavy Legislature; his last years were marked by veto overrides on the budget and marriage equality.

Scott isn’t in the same zip code as Shumlin in terms of political dead-endism. But he’s trending in that direction. The more stubborn he becomes on policy, the more often he treats his opponents with open contempt, the more he refuses to act like a human being, the closer he gets to the end of his time in politics.

It hasn’t happened yet. But sooner or later, it happens to everyone.


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