Shap The Great And Powerful

Interesting words from Shap Smith, Speaker of the Vermont House and political operator of great renown.

They came in a piece by Paul “The Huntsman” Heintz, tanned and rested from a midwinter vacation*, about the pending failure of a bill to mandate paid sick leave for Vermont workers. I say “pending failure” because, although the measure seemed to have broad legislative support, the air has suddenly gone out of its balloon.

*Location unknown, although scurrilous unfounded rumors suggest Dick Cheney’s favorite quail ranch.

The final pinprick was delivered by Mr. Speaker himself:

“I don’t think the landscape right at the moment is conducive to passing the legislation,” the speaker says.

Methinks Paul omitted a verb between “landscape” and “right,” but never mind. The passage I wanted to highlight has to do with Mr. Speaker’s reputation as a master strategist.

As for Smith, he says there’s a reason he rarely suffers defeats on the House floor.

“I do not think the idea of putting a bill on the floor to see whether it can swim to shore is a good idea if you don’t think it has the strength to swim to shore,” he says. “One of the reasons that I’m known as somebody who can get stuff done is that I don’t put things on the floor that fail.”

Mmmm. Oh. I see. So the reason you have a winning record is you never take up fights you might lose. I call that Profiles in Courage, for sure.  

 It’s as if Big Papi begged out of a series against the Tigers by saying “One of the reasons that I’m known as a good hitter is that I try to avoid facing guys like Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer.”

Or Evel Knievel attempting a daring motorcycle jump over, not the Snake River Canyon, but Christy Canyon, because “One of the reasons I’m known as a successful daredevil is that I try to avoid jumping over things I might not be able to clear.”

Or Diana Nyad foregoing the Cuba-to-Florida swim in favor of a Lake Champlain crossing along the route of the Fort Ti Ferry because “One of the reasons I’m known as a distance swimmer is that I only attempt crossings I know I can finish.”

I don’t really think Shap Smith was trying to undermine his own reputation. What I do think is he’s grasping for rationalizations, and in an effort to avoid the truth (Democratic leadership caving to the business community, part no. 4,266,148), he stumbled upon the “Aw, shucks” ploy.

But just for the record, people become “known as somebody who can get stuff done,” not by ducking the tough battles, but by actually getting the difficult stuff done.  

One thought on “Shap The Great And Powerful

  1. I don’t think you’re being at all fair, JV.  

    First, your comparisons are not to the point: the sports analogies concern INDIVIDUAL performance: even though baseball is a team sport, the performance you’re describing– one batter facing one pitcher — is purely an individual act.  Shap’s role is much more analogous to a team manager than to one player.

    What Shap is saying makes sense to me: if you bring issues to the floor which aren’t going to pass anyway, then you’re pushing your members — often against their own proclivities — to stick their necks out for what’s going to amount to nothing.

    You’re, in effect, demanding that THEY — the rest of your team — become “profiles in courage” and potentially lose their seats (depending on the magnitude of the issue) for something you KNOW (or think very likely) is not going to become law anyway.  It’s their butts that will be on the line for taking a hard vote, not Shap’s.

    As a leader, you can do that a time or two, but it won’t be long before the members of your body are looking elsewhere for leadership.  Leaders remain leaders by not spending their political capital foolishly, and not asking their members to do so either.

    There is a fine line, of course, between a bill that won’t ever pass and a bill that just might pass if leadership pushes hard enough. And I want to make it clear, I have NO idea in this instance which is closer to the truth.

    But, in either instance, there’s one more consideration which applies.  A bill which passes the House and then dies in the 2nd biennium of a legislative session is no farther along than one which was never brought to a vote.  In this case, you have both the leadership of the Senate and the governor opposing the bill.

    I’m not saying Shap has made the right decision here.  I don’t have anywhere near enough knowledge of the situation to reach that judgement.  I AM saying that his reasoning is not cowardly, as you suggest, and that it makes perfect political sense to be thinking the way he says he is.  

    There’s another Shap Smith quote in Seven Days, which is very much in line with my argument:

    “I think that you have to both listen to your people and push them,” he says. “And right at the moment, I am telling you, as someone who’s done this job for six years, we’re not in a position to pass it.”

    To me, that makes perfect sense.

    P.S.  I should add that I hardly know Shap — I spoke to him for a few minutes once about VY issues years ago — and that while this comment sounds like glowing general support, it’s meant to speak only to the issue at hand.  In general, I HAVE found that Smith makes a good deal of sense, but my comments here spring not from support for him, particularly, but from my general sense of how politics works.

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