By Michael Shank
This commentary is by Michael Shank, a resident of Montpelier who is an adjunct professor at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and George Mason University’s Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.
Over the July 4 weekend, a resident of a town in Vermont posted a picture on social media of Gov. Phil Scott walking in a parade and said that Vermont has a great governor, and that Scott is one of the good Republicans and that they voted for him even though they are Democrats.
They continued, saying that he’s a true, humble servant who made sure every Covid decision was grounded in science and data. That post was then liked by a bunch of other Democrats from that same town.
A post like this says several important things about Vermont Democrats that I want to unpack here.
First and foremost, a post like this is as much about the Democrat posting it as it is about Gov. Phil Scott. Vermonters are proud of their bipartisanship, and in these very divided times, there is indeed a need for bipartisanship. But let’s distinguish symbolic bipartisanship — or “bipartisanship-in-name-only” — from a bipartisanship that actually solves problems.
As one Vermonter astutely commented, “Democrats are freaked out and scared, and desperately want to believe that Scott is different and OK, because the alternative reality is less reassuring. They want to believe there is one good Republican. However, many of his actions are a velvet-gloved version of national policies.”
And it’s this facade that is so problematic.
This is where the second point comes in, on science and data. Because the first point on symbolic bipartisanship leads to a loosening of expectations for the second point on sound science and data.
The assertion that Gov. Phil Scott is grounding his policy in science and data is erroneous and dangerous. On Covid, even as data showed that Vermonters were losing access to care and schools were being disrupted by the pandemic, he didn’t act. As Covid surges forced school closures, though the science and data called for community mitigation in order to keep schools open, he declined to lead, forcing local communities to fight over masking.
Scott had the Vermont Department of Health at his disposal, but he let school districts, which do not have public health experts on staff, make the hard calls. That was a political decision that let him take the credit and schools take the heat. And this lack of leadership only led to more Covid waves, illnesses and deaths that we could’ve prevented but didn’t.
That same laissez-faire approach to science and data is what Scott is using on a range of issues, not just Covid, but on climate, too. He gives mollifying lip service to the climate conversation. Scott doesn’t want to do anything outside the free market to lower Vermont’s emissions, and so he vetoes climate policy that would provide critical support to transition the state off fossil fuels. He did that this year, in fact, not following the science and the data and, instead, vetoing a clean heat standard that Vermont desperately needed.
Vermonters of all stripes came together on this bill and said we need climate action, and then Scott did nothing. It makes you wonder if all of this talk of bipartisanship is legitimizing doing nothing, rather than coming together to find bipartisan solutions to move forward.
That leads to my third point on serving the citizenry. This illusion of bipartisanship means that Vermont Democrats are OK with and ultimately responsible for Scott’s legacy of vetoing policy that would help all of us. Take the legitimately bipartisan legislative effort this year to support Vermont teachers and public servants and ensure that their retirement was protected. Scott vetoed that effort. Thankfully, the Legislature unanimously overrode his veto, but to be clear, Scott vetoed that bipartisan effort to support public school teachers and public servants.
Scott’s “leadership” approach is to veto. He’s not a fan of laws or governing at all. There’s a reason why planners call this place the Wild West; it starts from the top.
Here’s a list of what he vetoed just this session: Scott vetoed the opioid overdose response study amid the biggest overdose increase nationally, a bill with critical updates to Act 250 amid a climate crisis, a bill to register contractors amid a housing crisis, a bill to keep firearms out of hospitals amid a national reckoning on gun violence, a bill to protect renters from unjust evictions, a bill to begin decriminalizing drug possession, a bill to expand eligibility for expungement and sealing of nonviolent records, a bill to conserve Vermont’s biodiversity, and more.
And that’s only this session and doesn’t include other recent vetoes, like his veto on paid family leave. A true bipartisan leader would come together to confront problems like these facing all Vermonters. That’s not what’s happening here.
If Scott cared about the science and data, it would actually highlight that the leadership is doing nothing in the face of crisis. If Scott cared about the data that Vermont’s economic divide is only growing larger, he wouldn’t be vetoing the policies above. These are bills that would’ve helped tens of thousands of Vermonters.
So, when Democrats support Scott in symbolic bipartisanship, that means that they’re OK with no real substantive action on climate, they’re OK with unjust evictions and an unjust criminal system, they’re OK with unpaid family leave, and they’re OK with a universally Republican approach to governing.
As others have said, government is how we work together to do what we can’t do, or can’t do well, as individuals. Being safe and being well should not be a matter of luck. Government is how we take care of each other. Doing this would constitute a legitimately bipartisan approach.
But that’s not what we’re seeing here. This isn’t bipartisanship and it’s not great leadership. It’s not grounded in science and data, and it’s not true humble service to the people. The vetoes above directly contradict that assertion. If anything, it’s an anti-legislative, pro-big-business, anti-public-service, anti-public-education, and anti-justice agenda.
We all want bipartisanship but only if it means that we’re actually coming together to address the problems in the state with solutions that will help all Vermonters. Bipartisanship in name only helps no one.