Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens sold voters an action flick, but he’s giving us a real war

They already feel so long ago, those campaign ads. Remember? Eric Greitens, running to be Missouri’s governor, billing himself as a former Navy SEAL and literally shooting guns and detonating explosives? Remember how he barked at us that this was exactly how he’d blow up Show-Me politics?

He won. And then he really called in the heavy artillery.

In the first year of his first term, Greitens rendered any prospect for serious ethics reform in Jefferson City a smoldering ash heap. He shelled open-records laws. He took a flamethrower to the shield that usually protects Missouri schoolchildren from political interference. He treated leaders in Kansas City and St. Louis like enemy combatants. And his comments so far have suggested that he’d just as soon waterboard legislators from his own Republican party as work with them.

Who needs the state GOP, after all, when so much out-of-state politicking must be done, the better to gather up more dark money, earmarked for who-knows-who’s agendas? Why answer to anybody around here when Donald Trump’s presidency every day begs national Republicans to find their next act.

Voters figured they were electing an action hero. What we all got instead was a declaration of war. Last year was exhausting. And now we stagger into 2018, reeling from Greitens fatigue. Count among the shell-shocked Lauren Arthur, a Democratic legislator from Clay County, who last month told me she felt the upcoming legislative session “like a pit in your stomach.”

There are many ways to recap Greitens’ freshman year. There were the colorful moments, such as the “beady little eyes” remark when he was trying to intimidate a state senator. There was the straight-faced, sub-WWE rappelling entrance into a bull-riding event at a Springfield arena. There was the sneering reference to a proposed university conservatory in downtown Kansas City as a haven for “dancers and art students.”

Remember when candidate Greitens promised to take on corruption in Jefferson City? He meant for everyone but himself. As he fulminated about legislators taking gifts from lobbyists, Greitens’ operatives were busy setting up “A New Missouri,” a nonprofit created to collect anonymous contributions from in- and out-of-state donors. Greitens travels the country on private planes so as to avoid revealing his destinations. He communicates with aides via an app that deletes text messages as soon as they’re read. The functions of his office are a closely guarded secret. When Missouri journalists ask him about these things, he regards them as he would a rabid squirrel dragged in by its bleeding neck between the jaws of a loyal hunting dog. No one deserves the truth — not the media, and not legislators, people he keeps calling “corrupt career politicians” even as he shamelessly pads his political résumé.

Curiously, Greitens’ standing with Missouri citizens may wind up a casualty of his smash-and-grab style. The Morning Consult, a Washington-based polling and news organization, reported in October that only 49 percent of Missourians viewed Greitens favorably. That’s not exactly Trump territory, but it’s a pretty lousy report card for a Republican governor in a red state.

“He just shows no interest in governing,” said Arthur, an assessment echoed by Democrats and Republicans.

Yet for Greitens to keep promoting himself effectively on the national stage, he’ll need to do something here. He’s probably figuring this out, having reportedly made a bid for the vice chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association when it met in Texas last year, only to see Pete Ricketts of Nebraska get the gig. Perhaps as a consolation prize, Greitens got to monitor a panel discussion on “disrupting the mainstream media.”

The governor’s bad temper notwithstanding, he hasn’t done as much of that as you’d think. Missouri’s mainstream press is carrying on just fine, digging up stories that would embarrass most people with a political conscience. Consider what it took for Greitens to carry out his craven campaign to oust the state’s popular education commissioner. Presumably meant to give the appearance that he is promoting a kind of “school choice” agenda — while pleasing some deep-pocketed donors — it mostly revealed the ex-soldier’s inexperience at governing.

Greitens has undeniably been disruptive, though. And lawmakers now plan to turn the tables. Furious about the governor’s manipulation of the state Board of Education — he repeatedly appointed and removed members until he achieved a coalition that would fire Commissioner Margie Vandeven — senators are plotting revenge. They will almost certainly refuse to confirm Greitens’ appointees to the education board, and may hold up other appointments as well.

“I don’t know where the second year is headed,” says state Sen. Rob Schaaf, a Republican from St. Joseph who clashed repeatedly with Greitens in 2017. “He is carrying the water of special interests — especially the ones that give him money or who give money to his dark-money group.”

Along with power struggles with the legislature, Missourians can anticipate more national pageantry from the governor. Attacks on already weakened unions, more restrictions on abortion, and attempts to stop citizens from seeking redresses in court are almost surely in the offing, each designed to burnish Greitens’ bona fides as a capital-C conservative deserving of capital-C cash from big-money GOP donors.

It’s worth wondering where we’d be right now if Greitens had been the governor he campaigned to be — a thoughtful non-politician, capable of forming new alliances and working with both urban and rural leaders to push Missouri free from its worst habits of governance.

But Greitens is not that leader. He is a pretender playing a part, starring as the master of a small universe where everyone stays on script, where he is always the hero — and where there are live rounds in the chamber, ready to do real damage.

“He’s a great campaigner,” Jason Holsman, a Democratic senator from Kansas City, says of Greitens. “He is incredibly disciplined with his messaging. He’ll get a phrase and stay with it no matter what you ask him.”

Everyone assumes Greitens’ goal is the White House, or at least the vice presidency, and even his detractors concede he has a shot.

“He could probably lose Missouri, and, if he raised enough money, he might get elected [president] someday,” Schaaf says. “People won’t know what a scoundrel he is.”

Or maybe they just won’t care. America’s current scoundrel-in-chief got to the White House by demolishing everything in his path. In the wake of that destruction is a path for Greitens, who doesn’t need achievements or friends. He just needs to keep blowing things up. 

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