Vermont’s Reagan

With Tuesday’s historic win, Phil Scott runs his electoral record to 12 wins, 0 losses. That’s combining his runs for state Senate, lieutenant governor, and governor.

That’s… um… rarefied air.

He has often faced weak opposition and benefited greatly from the incumbent’s edge. He’s also enjoyed good timing; his first run was in 2000, an historically good Republican year because of the backlash to civil unions. He ran for governor at the end of Peter Shumlin’s curdled administration, when voters were primed to make a change.

But still. Twelve and 0.

Leaving aside the quality of competition, what makes Phil Scott so popular? Well, you might not associate the plausibly moderate Phil Scott with the transformative conservative Ronald Reagan, but they are more similar than you might think. And that’s the secret sauce. Scott is Vermont’s Reagan.

What did Ronald Reagan do? He projected the image of the strong, capable commander in chief, a man you could trust with the levers of power. The reality was much different; in quality of governance, the Reagan administration was a triumph of image over reality. So is Scott’s. There have been plenty of red flags about his administration’s shortcomings and missteps, but the narrative is more powerful than the reality. Plus, he gets a big boost from the wasted state of our political media. Ain’t nobody going on fishing expeditions these days, or doing the hard work to uncover problems.

More importantly, Reagan smoothed the rough edges off his ideology. He slammed the country into a hard right turn, but did so with a smile on his face. He gave voice to our most cherished myths about America, and convinced us he fully believed in every last one of them. He made us feel good.

Well, not gay people or women or people of color or immigrants or or or. But “us” as in the electoral majority, white folks. His calm, easygoing manner also obscured his bigotry. We are, after all, talking about the guy who launched his presidential campaign with a speech about states’ rights in Neshoba County, Mississippi, site of the brutal murders of three civil rights activists in 1964, and only a few miles from the national headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan. (Remember we’re talking about 1980, a mere 16 years after those killings.) We’re also talking about the guy who ignored the AIDS crisis while it became an epidemic that would kill a half million Americans.

That’s beside the point. I don’t accuse Phil Scott of racism. Or of ignoring a pandemic. But like Reagan, he puts a smiley face on his policies, which are more conservative than his image. And he convincingly expresses our most cherished beliefs about ourselves and our state. It’s an exceptional place with exceptional people. We’ve got a lot to be proud of, and little to apologize for. You might say it’s a shining city on a hill, except that was Reagan’s line.

Unlike Reagan, who was an actor playing a sunny American, Scott sincerely believes all of those myths. You see it in his public speaking and in his approach to managing the state: His default setting is that our [policies, systems, laws] are plenty good enough, so why mess with them?

Vermonters eat this stuff up. This is, after all, the land of Grandfather’s Lightbulb.

(“How many Vermonters does it take to change a lightbulb?” “Change it? That was my grandfather’s lightbulb!”)

Phil Scott is a spoonful of honey, a nice big comfy recliner. His opponent, Brenda Siegel, is a healthy dose of castor oil, a hard-backed wooden chair. She told Vermonters that there were a lot of things wrong with their state. That we faced numerous crises, in fact, and it would take strong, forceful action to get Vermont on the right course.

She had a lot of evidence on her side, but who wants to hear that?

This isn’t the only reason she lost. She had a huge name recognition disadvantage and her campaign was sorely underfunded. Some had doubts about her qualifications for the job, which kind of goes with being a little-known candidate who’s never held elective office.

But it sure didn’t help that she was up there on the debate stage rattling off all our crises and inadequacies, standing next to Mr. Nice Guy and Proud Vermonter, the closest thing we have to the ruggedly handsome optimist Ronald Reagan.


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