Lukewarm Lee’s failure to take a stand may cost him his career

July 11, 2022 3:34 pm
Gov. Bill Lee signs an executive order on June 6 that reinforces existing school safety guidelines. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

Gov. Bill Lee signs an executive order on June 6 that reinforces existing school safety guidelines–while adding no extra safety measures or tightening gun laws. (Photo: Sam Stockard)

I’ve spent a great deal of time over the last couple of weeks pondering the conundrum that is Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.

During that time, Lee has faced a barrage of criticism for his failure to repudiate comments by the president of Hillsdale College, Larry Arnn, the latter of whom was captured on video at a recent event calling teachers “dumb,” among other comments. 

Arnn is a friend and advisor of Lee’s and the pair are working to launch 50 to 100 Hillsdale-backed charter schools in Tennessee. 

Hillsdale is the private, conservative Michigan college that operates charter schools using the Hillsdale College 1776 Curriculum, designed to push back on critical race theory — which is not taught at any level below law school —  and is a product of former President Donald Trump’s now-defunct 1776 Commission.

Since the video of Arnn’s provocative comments became public on July 1, Lee has been given ample opportunity in the media to redeem himself by publicly disagreeing with Arnn’s view of educators and colleges of education. 

He hasn’t disagreed with Arnn, but he hasn’t exactly agreed, either. 

Lee dissembled during a Wednesday media availability, saying he couldn’t interpret Arnn’s remarks: “Those are my comments and others will have to interpret others’ comments.”

This isn’t the first time Lee has failed to make a strong statement in either the affirmative or negative about a controversial issue. 

In May, Lee declined to sign the “truth-in-sentencing” bill, which would force violent offenders to serve their full sentences, but let it become law without his signature, a move that didn’t please Republican leaders. 

“You can protect criminals, or you can protect victims. I stand with victims, as do members of law enforcement, our district attorneys, & criminal judges across Tennessee,” House Speaker Cameron Sexton, R-Crossville, said in a May 6 Twitter statement.

In early June, Lee declined to sign into law a bill that criminalizes camping on public property, saying he wanted to be involved in finding solutions for persons in homelessness that don’t involve arrest. 

Gov. Bill Lee’s vacillation on issues including defense of Tennessee’s public education and public teachers and gun safety in schools won’t pacify either Democrats or Republicans and could keep him from realizing aspirations to higher office.

But he didn’t veto the bill. Again, he let it become law without his signature, which is weak sauce. 

A few days later, after the Uvalde, Texas school massacre, Lee signed an executive order on school safety, admitting gun violence is “a serious problem,” but refused to tighten gun laws. 

“… Criminals don’t follow laws, criminals break laws. Whether they are gun law or drug law, criminals break laws. … We can’t control what they do, but we can control what we can control,” he said at the time in as wishy-washy a statement as I can imagine.

There are rumors rife in Tennessee political circles that Lee aspires to higher office, possibly vice president or even president. As a candidate for vice president, he would fit into the Mike Pence mold: a governor, an evangelical Christian conservative and a family man. 

But it’s harder to see Lee as a presidential candidate, running against outspoken right-wingers like former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. 

Tennessee Democrats naturally have no love for Lee but neither do Tennessee’s hard core conservatives. How, if he equivocates about the Second Amendment, will he win over single issue voters? He says he supports teachers but won’t push back on insulting and derogatory comments about them.

I have wondered if the Christian in him pulls him toward the center; if his faith won’t allow him to brazenly pander to the lowest and most bigoted elements of the Republican Party. 

Should he have plans to run for higher office, the angel on his shoulder that keeps him from going full-tilt right wing, stolen election, anti-immigrant conspiracy theorist will have to fight with the political devil on his other shoulder that will allow him to be competitive in national Republican politics. 

My mother used to roll out a Bible verse when a family member vacillated or dithered about a decision: “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I would that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.” (Revelations 3:15-17.) 

As it is, Lee may be too hot for Democrats and too cold for Republicans, but if he remains lukewarm, he’ll eventually find himself spat out by both parties and out of the political arena.

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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.