Rick Scott meets the Peter Principle

Has Florida’s junior senator reached his ‘level of incompetence?’

What has become the iconic photo of Rick Scott, taken in 2012. (Photo: Joe Skipper for Reuters)

Oct. 8, 2022 by David Silverberg

In 1969, Canadian educator Laurence Peter published the book The Peter Principle. In it he put forward the idea that capable people in hierarchical organizations tend to be promoted until they reach what he called their “level of incompetence.”

The Peter Principle has been a management byword ever since.

Today Floridians can see the Peter Principle in action in their junior senator, Richard Lynn “Rick” Scott.

After repeatedly laying out massive amounts of cash to win election as governor and senator in Florida, Scott has now reached a position in the United States Senate and the Republican Party where his judgment, his ideas and his results are questionable, to put it mildly. He’s proposing very extreme measures for the country that are being roundly rejected by his fellow Republicans, his prospects for success in guiding Republicans to a Senate majority dim by the day, and in the wake of Hurricane Ian he’s not even voting to help his state.

It certainly has all the markings of the Peter Principle in action, Florida Man version.

What’s more, despite all this, he clearly has his eyes on the presidency in 2024, which also marks the last year of his Senate term.

So, has Rick Scott reached his level of incompetence?

The cash cushion

Like so many Floridians, the 69-year-old Scott is a Midwestern transplant, having been born in Bloomington, Ill. He received his Bachelor degree at the University of Missouri and his law degree at Southern Methodist University in Texas.

After a stint in the Navy in the early 1970s he worked as a lawyer. In 1989 he was a co-founder of the Columbia Hospital Corporation to provide for-profit healthcare. With Scott as its chief executive officer (CEO) it merged with another company to become Columbia/HCA, the nation’s largest for-profit healthcare company.

But in 1997 Columbia/HCA became mired in scandal when federal agencies accused it of defrauding Medicare, Medicaid and other federal programs. Scott was questioned and invoked the Fifth Amendment 75 times. As a result of a federal lawsuit, Columbia/HCA admitted to the fraud and was forced to pay $1.7 billion in fines to the government. It was the largest settlement of its kind in American history. Although there were no criminal charges against him, Scott was forced to resign as CEO four months after the charges became public.

After a period as a venture capitalist Scott ran for governor of Florida in 2010 after Charles “Charlie” Crist chose to run for the US Senate rather than seek another term as governor.

Scott’s spending on his first political race broke all previous state campaign records. He poured $85 million into the race, more than $73 million of which was family money. The prior record had been held by Crist himself, when he spent $24.6 million in his 2006 gubernatorial bid, a sum that now seemed like a pittance.

Yet for all that spending Scott only narrowly defeated his primary opponent, then-Attorney General Bill McCollum, by 46.4 percent of the vote. His general election victory was even closer: Scott garnered 48.92 percent to Democrat Alex Sink’s 47.67 percent, a difference of only 61,550 votes. It was the closest Florida gubernatorial race since 1876.

In 2014 Scott’s re-election race against Crist cost him $12.8 million of his own money. Campaign finance laws in Florida changed after the 2010 race and so had national campaign finance laws in the wake of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision allowing unrestricted issue-oriented campaign spending.

Between Scott’s contributions and outside spending groups, a study, “Campaign Spending and the 2014 Florida Gubernatorial Race” in the Journal of Florida Studies estimated Scott’s spending at $79 million, or $27.58 per vote, while the Crist campaign effort cost $47.74 million or $17.04 per vote.

Scott won this race too, by a narrow margin: 48.1 percent to Crist’s 47.1 percent, a difference of 64,145 votes.

“While this [spending] would win Scott the election, it would not do so by a larger margin than he won in 2010,” notes the study’s author, Harold Orndorff.

A full policy review of Scott’s term in office is beyond the scope of this essay but suffice to say it featured mostly extreme Republican conservative orthodoxy with a few Scott idiosyncrasies thrown in. Most notable was Scott’s absolute rejection of the idea of climate change to the point where the term was informally banned from use in his administration—and this in an environmentally sensitive state subject to the worst effects of global warming. The full impact—mostly deleterious—of his tenure is a book yet to be written.

Limited to two terms, Scott decided to run for the US Senate against incumbent Bill Nelson in 2018. Once again, he brought out the big bucks to do it, spending a record $64 million of his own money.

After an election so close it was in dispute for weeks and took two recounts, Scott was declared the winner by 50.1 percent to Nelson’s 49.9 percent, a hairsbreadth difference of 10,033 votes.

The lesson of this electoral history is that while Scott has won, it has always been at great expense and by very narrow margins.

Scott is not a natural politician. He doesn’t evoke feelings of warmth or goodwill. He doesn’t inspire great loyalty or allegiance. His policy prescriptions can be idiosyncratic but are mostly conventionally far right. In the days before Donald Trump he was the Donald Trump of Florida, winning over fringe conservatives but also getting enough votes of dutifully traditional mainstream Republicans to just barely put him over the finish line.

A flawed Florida model

There’s no denying or disputing Scott’s victories, no matter how narrow or expensive. He won the elections he entered. But these victories also seem peculiar to Florida, with its fragmented media markets and its distance and popular alienation from the federal government. It’s a land where most people are indifferent to policy, where retirees want to freeze time and where, as political consultant Rick Wilson once said, “everything north of I-4 is just Alabama with more guns.”

As Scott has shown through his vast cash outlays, a politician can buy elections in Florida. But now he’s also showing that his Florida model doesn’t necessarily translate into national success.

In 2020 Republican senators elected Scott to be chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He was charged with managing all the mechanics of electing a Republican Senate including finding candidates, raising money and aiding their campaigns.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the Senate Minority Leader, was looking to Scott to make him Senate Majority Leader in 2023. With the party holding the presidency traditionally losing congressional seats in its first midterm election and with President Joe Biden having a low approval rating, Scott seemed to have the wind at his back and an easy path ahead.

Instead, as of this writing, Democrats are narrowly favored to keep the Senate (the website FiveThirtyEight.com puts their odds at 68 percent). Republican Senate candidates are foundering (every day seems to bring a new scandal or gaffe to Georgia’s Herschel Walker).

Even McConnell has complained. “I think there’s a probably a greater likelihood that the House flips than the Senate,” he said at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Kentucky in August. “Senate races are just different—they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome.” It was widely seen as a swipe at Scott’s performance.

Scott for his part seemed to see the NRSC as just a springboard to the presidency. Wags have joked that NRSC really stands for National Rick Scott Campaign.

In defiance of McConnell, Scott, in consultation with Donald Trump, unveiled his own 12-point agenda in February called the “Commitment to America.” It would impose taxes on the poorest Americans and subject Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to five-year reauthorizations, with the possibility of termination. This directly threatens Florida’s many seniors dependent on these programs.

At a time when American states, counties and cities are still recovering from the COVID pandemic and natural disasters, Scott’s plan would cut off their federal funding. It would slash jobs for police, firefighters, teachers and other local public employees. Nationally, there are an estimated 795,000 police, 317,200 firefighters and 3.2 million teachers. All their jobs would be jeopardized. Ironically enough, Scott’s plan would defund the police.

At a time when pro-choice forces are energized and alarmed over the loss of the right to choose and are flocking to the Democratic Party, Scott dodged questions about his support for a proposal to impose a national abortion ban introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

But beyond the national campaigns and the future of the presidency, Scott has actually turned on his own state—and in its greatest hour of need.

After capably handling the onslaught of Hurricane Irma as governor in 2017, Scott failed abysmally as senator after the catastrophe of Hurricane Ian in 2022, which made landfall in Southwest Florida on Sept. 28.

Just two days later, on Sept. 30, when the Senate voted to fund the government until Dec. 16—which included roughly $20 billion in disaster relief funds for the country as a whole—Scott voted against the measure.

Not only was Scott’s vote striking given Florida’s distress, it was at odds with the rest of the Senate’s Republican caucus. The measure, the Continuing Appropriations and Ukraine Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2023 (House Resolution 6833), also known as a continuing resolution or CR, was endorsed by McConnell and the Senate Republican leadership. Along with all the Democrats, 22 Republicans approved it and it passed the Senate by a lopsided vote of 72 to 25. (Florida’s other senator, Marco Rubio, was absent for the vote. The bill also passed the House by 230 to 201, with all 16 House Republicans from Florida voting against it. Biden signed it into law that day, just before the end of the federal fiscal year.)

It’s worth considering what would have happened had Scott’s negative vote succeeded. The federal government would have shut down. The Federal Emergency Management Agency would have halted operations just as it was getting into gear to help Southwest Florida. There would have been no urban search and rescue teams from other states flying into Florida to save people trapped under the rubble. There would have been no Coast Guard operations to help victims stranded by storm surge. There would have been no federal aid for housing, food, safety, security, or communications.

This is the kind of apocalypse Scott was voting for with his negative vote.

On Sept. 7, well before Hurricane Ian made landfall, Scott forcefully urged Republicans to reject the continuing resolution.

“Today I am urging every Republican to demand that Congress pass a clean CR that simply maintains current federal spending levels,” he declared in a statement. “We cannot cave to the demands of the Democrats carrying out an agenda led by a raving lunatic in the White House.”

That “raving lunatic” visited Southwest Florida on Wednesday, Oct. 5, to see the damage for himself. He pledged the full faith, credit and resources of the United States to help Florida—and especially Southwest Florida—recover and aid the people hurt by the storm.

Revealing the man

Now, all the doubts and criticism of Scott may be rendered moot by a smashing Republican Senate victory on Nov. 8 that vindicates his senatorial efforts.

Perhaps Republicans will win the Senate. Perhaps McConnell will become majority leader.  Perhaps Scott will be hailed as a political genius. Perhaps 2022 will pave the way for Scott’s 2024 nomination as president and his ultimate election to the White House. Perhaps Florida and Southwest Florida in particular will fully recover and rebuild without any federal help at all. Perhaps the disgrace and stigma of the Columbia/HCA fraud will be flushed down the river of history and Scott will be washed clean by the purifying waters of political power.

It could happen.

However, with exactly one month to go until the election that’s not the way it’s looking.

Instead, what appears to be happening is that a man who bought his elections in Florida has now come up against a much more complex political task than he ever faced before. Rather than easily manipulating a disinterested Florida electorate through television ads, Scott is fumblingly trying to juggle diverse and aroused populations throughout a vast country that he doesn’t really understand.

First Lady Michelle Obama once observed: “Being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.”

The same could be said for any high office. Each step up the ladder reveals a bit more about the person you are. With each step upward there are more people scrutinizing your flaws, more people critiquing your moves, and more people watching to see if you fall.

Rick Scott has climbed pretty high. Each step has revealed more about his capabilities and character. It’s been a very enlightening ascent for those bothering to watch. Scott obviously hopes to climb higher. But the ladder is swaying and there’s the pesky possibility that at his current step he may have reached as far as he’s able.

Has he reached his “level of incompetence?” It certainly seems so. However, on Nov. 8, with every vote for every Senate seat throughout the nation, Americans will decide for themselves.

Liberty lives in light

© 2022 by David Silverberg

Help defend democracy in Southwest Florida—donate here!

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