Perhaps the shortest-lived trend of the Trump Era was the conservative love of the political outsider disrupting politics as usual. When Bill Lee beat out a host of Tennessee political royalty in the 2018 Republican primary, the founder of HVAC business The Lee Company seemed like the brass tacks leader ready to protect the will of the people and be a good steward of the state’s tax surplus. Then Covid hit, and Lee went the way of The Donald.
Deferring to experts and never draining the swamp of which our Biggest Predator honoree Michelle Fiscus is most indicative, Lee tried to have his politics both ways, paying lip service to individual rights while always giving himself a backdoor. He bestowed his power to mandate masks onto county mayors in a constitutionally questionable abdication of responsibility that also gave unelected boards of health the authority to make law. Lee unwittingly created a patchwork of restrictions that upended local economies and caused an exodus of money to counties rebuffing restrictive measures, a massive blunder for a politician who touted his business acumen on the campaign trail. He also spent millions on pro-mask propaganda in an attempt to sidestep explicitly endorsing face coverings, a far cry from the kitchen-table budgeting and practical financial sense he advocated on the campaign trail.
As citizens remained under the thumb of unelected officials and clueless mayors, Lee only reversed course after letting states like Florida and Texas assume the position of canary in the coal mine, playing it safe at the expense of Tennesseans’ freedom. Even his directive to give parents masking choice lacked teeth as larger cities simply ignored it, an odd outcome for a governor gaining a reputation as more directly involved in crafting the General Assembly’s agenda than his predecessors. Lee will likely win reelection, but his ascent should prove an exception. With bold governors like Florida’s Ron Desantis becoming a White House contender and South Dakota’s Kristi Noem achieving celebrity status after her refusal to close her state paid off, maybe governorships should remain in the hands of those coming up the political ranks with a belief in subverting the system rather than a guy not even willing to read the owner’s manual.