Democratic Doldrums

Phil Bredesen's gubernatorial win was overshadowed by his party's malaise elsewhere.



Superficially, Tennessee, which elected a Democratic governor, seemed to be mildly out of sync with the national trend. But only superficially. President George W. Bush had orchestrated a brilliant GOP campaign -- part shell game, part Halloween masque, focusing on the now-you-see-him/now-you-don't bogeyman Saddam Hussein -- that seemed to crush the spirits of Democrats and discredit their national leadership.

But there were telltale signs of Democratic weakness in Tennessee too. There were significant party losses in the state House and Senate. And there was Willie Herenton, the mayor of Memphis.

Herenton has been a social symbol many times in his lifetime. A Golden Gloves boxing champion in his impoverished youth, he became superintendent of his city's once rigidly segregated school system and then, wonder of wonders, the first black mayor in Memphis history. He has now become a symbol of the current political moment: As much as anybody or anything else, he represents the diminished power of the Democratic Party to command the loyalty of its longtime base.

Herenton has worn the mantle of Democratic Leader when it suits him. During the 2000 presidential campaign, for example, he was featured before, during, and after the Democratic convention in Los Angeles as a prime mover for Gore-Lieberman.

And he was an early champion of Phil Bredesen for the Democratic nomination for governor. Eight years earlier, however, it had been otherwise. Herenton had kept a careful silence during the 1994 gubernatorial race between Democrat Bredesen and the Republican nominee, 7th District congressman Don Sundquist. When Sundquist won, Herenton began letting it be known that he had "supported" his fellow Memphian. This mushroomed into an "endorsement" in subsequent years.

The mayor's routine this time around was less dog and more pony. Though he never used the word "endorse," he made no effort to be circumspect about his involvement in the Lamar Alexander campaign, showing up as the guest of honor at a major campaign function and talking about "coalition" with the former governor.

His son Rodney Herenton, meanwhile, was directly involved in the campaign, as was longtime Herenton aide Reginald French. Both were at Alexander's victory celebration in Nashville Tuesday night when the Memphis mayor and increasingly nominal Democrat unveiled a "surprise" that shouldn't have been any surprise at all, introducing the senator-elect to the crowd and telling all and sundry later on that he hadn't thought much of Bob Clement as a senatorial candidate but that, even if he had, he regarded himself as a "nonpartisan" official who didn't have to represent the interests of any particular party.

Considering that his communications aide and close adviser, Gale Jones Carson, doubles as chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party, this was an interesting admission.

As it happens, the Memphis mayor's chief local rivals for power -- the Ford family, which boasts a present and former congressman, a state senator, and representatives on every legislative body in Memphis and Shelby County -- didn't invest much belief in Bob Clement either. U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., the media darling and dynamo who had badly wanted to run for Fred Thompson's vacated Senate seat himself, made a couple of pro forma appearances on the Nashville congressman's behalf, but the family saved its major effort for gubernatorial candidate Bredesen.

That's another story, itself an object lesson: The ex-Nashville mayor had saved for the last week of his campaign a ploy that was implicit in his strategy all along -- the announcement of a "Republicans for Bredesen" committee, composed of the kind of solid corporate and entrepreneurial citizens who had been rumored to be for Bredesen (on account of his much-vaunted "managerial" ability). (One of the celebrants at Bredesen's Hilton postelection bash was Dave Goetz, longtime chief lobbyist for the state's business community.)

In fact, Bredesen had such obvious built-in appeal to the business wing of the Republican Party that his Republican opponent, 4th District congressman Van Hilleary, had taken to calling the former health-care entrepreneur "an HMO millionaire" and posing as a populist defender of the common man against him. Another tack taken by Hilleary -- that Bredesen's professed disbelief in a state income tax was insincere -- may, in fact, have been in error.

Many Democrats assumed Bredesen had been shamming as well -- some were irate, some were understanding -- but they, too, may have missed the point. In 1999, when he was still serving as mayor, Bredesen had publicly taken issue with the direction of ex-rival Sundquist's tax-reform effort, and there was nothing in the record, save a throwaway remark in a fledgling race made by Bredesen long ago in New York state, to suggest otherwise.

In any event, Bredesen's impressive early figures from the GOP bailiwick of East Tennessee on election night should have signaled a rout of Hilleary. That they didn't, even when coupled with a good Democratic turnout from Memphis, where both Herenton and the Fords were pulling their oar, was revealing of another fact: Bredesen had done relatively poorly in the Democratic heartland of Middle Tennessee, and that was the factor which made the gubernatorial race such a squeaker.

Erstwhile primary opponent Andy Womack of Murfreesboro, who, along with Bredesen's other Democratic rival, Charles Smith, had done some evangelizing on Bredesen's behalf, complained on election night, "They didn't do anything in Middle Tennessee. It's like they skipped over us and spent all their attention on West and East Tennessee. And that's what made it so close!"

Bredesen's own immediate postmortem on his narrow victory inadvertently confirmed that diagnosis: "Oh, there were times it got a little sticky. But generally, even when it looked uncomfortably close, it corresponded to what we had expected from this or that area."

Either, as indicated, Bredesen took the Democrats of Middle Tennessee for granted, or there weren't as many of them in those parts as has generally been supposed.

Even in Shelby County, Bredesen's margin could have been larger than it was but for some residual resentment among Democratic legislators there stemming from his anti-income-tax statements during tense moments in last spring's legislation session as well as a feeling of alienation from figures like Stuart Brunson, Bredesen's campaign director and a holdover from the state's presidential campaign in 2000, and chairman of the state Democratic Coordinating Committee.

"That Stuart Brunson!" fulminated state Rep. Kathryn Bowers, as she made ready to head back home to Memphis on Wednesday. "He was about as no-good and hurtful to the Bredesen campaign as he was to Gore-Lieberman in 2000. He and the rest of that bunch didn't listen to anybody, and they walled themselves off from real voters and real party people. They wouldn't pay attention, and they almost blew it the same way they blew the presidential race!"

TO BE SURE, the newly elected congressman from Hilleary's vacated 4th District is a Democrat, Lincoln Davis, and Davis' hard-fought and well-financed win over Republican Janice Bowling -- which gave the Democrats a 5 to 4 edge in the state's House delegation -- would seem to run counter to the national trend favoring George W. Bush and the GOP.

Except that it was a toss-up as to who ran more as a conservative, Davis or Bowling; so much was this the case -- especially on social themes like abortion and gun control -- that the pundit Robert Novak, archdeacon of the Republican right, proclaimed late in the campaign that Davis would be the most conservative Democratic congressman elected since the New Deal!

That this is something of an overstatement (after all, Davis was backed in the Democratic primary by no less than Al Gore!) does not belie its central truth: that, even in victory, Tennessee Democrats are shading, out of need or inclination, to their party's right. Even Harold Ford Jr., regarded by many as the state Democrats' (and maybe the national Democrats') best hope for the future, has chosen to locate his political identity among the Blue Dog conservatives of the Democratic Leadership Council.

In the present presumed climate of opinion, that may be the Good News for Democrats, not the Bad News. Although in Tennessee, as elsewhere, Democrats have in recent years suffered constant attrition as isolated cadres and candidates have drifted over to the Republican side, most of those who remain, even the most rightward-leaning, maintain stout party loyalties.

Take another Blue Dog luminary: 8th District congressman John Tanner of Union City, who nursed a libation in his hotel room at the Hilton Tuesday night and professed outrage at Bush and the GOP as the bad news from national contests streamed across the bottom of his TV screen.

"Those people ought to be arrested and tried for fraudulence!" Tanner said. "They took our minds off what was important, the economy, and sold us a bill of goods about Iraq. The idea, trying to convince us that a two-bit tinhorn dictator with 20 million starving people was a threat like Adolf Hitler! They don't have any weapons to bother us with! The whole thing was an election fraud. Nothing but!"

There were two bottom lines to this exclamation by Tanner (than whom there are few more conservative Democrats in the whole of the House of Representatives): 1) that -- at some level of reality -- party loyalty is still alive and well; 2) that, in the long run, economic factors of the sort that Tanner regarded as having been obfuscated by an artificial war fever are still bedrocks of the Democrats' constituency.

The fact remains that -- regardless of Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden or any other external menaces yet to be found -- the nation's economy is in the toilet, with rising unemployment, lowered productivity, and deficits once again mounting. The excesses of corporate greed may have been shoved under the rug during the late stages of the recent election campaign, but they will be remembered again as the economic crunch continues on the middle and working classes.

The Vietnam era served to radicalize the conscience of the middle class in some key respects, mainly social; another transformation is possible -- even likely -- under the prolonged stress of financial worry and resultant social dislocation. Given such circumstances -- and the prospect that Republicans will pursue their ongoing tax-break agenda while cold-shouldering minimum-wage concerns -- a lot of Democratic households now voting Republican could find themselves hearkening back to a bygone political era and reviving yellow-dog Democratic sympathies that are ancestral, if at the moment moribund.

No more forthright apostle of laissez-faire Republicanism now exists than the newly elected 7th District congressman, Marsha Blackburn. But even Blackburn in the course of working her mainly suburban and rural West Tennessee district was careful to moderate her language -- and her perspective -- this fall on such issues as privatizing Social Security.

There's a potential backlash out there to such notions as the one expressed by Senator-elect Lamar Alexander in the very concluding sentiments of his address to campaign supporters and celebrants Tuesday night. He would do what he could, he said, to minimize the growth of federal power in Washington.

That sort of rhetoric works fine and dandy in a boom period like the one which is now receding in our collective rearview mirror. It may not work as well in straitened times, even for so distinguished and personable a figure as Alexander.

House Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry was inclined Tuesday night to look for silver linings -- like the victory of an African-American Democrat, Nathan Vaughn, in state House District 2, formerly represented by the late Keith Westmoreland, a Republican. "One brand-new member of the caucus!" DeBerry, a stalwart of the legislative African-American caucus, enthused.

And she even had an optimistic outlook for Governor Don Sundquist, the Don Quixote of an utterly squashed tax-reform initiative who was made a fall guy in both Hilleary's and Bredesen's TV commercials. (When Bowers suggested at one point in her reelection race that Sundquist campaign for her in Memphis, the governor sheepishly replied, "Kathryn, I'm not sure you really want me to!")

Said Democrat DeBerry of the GOP's apostate prince: "When you try so hard to do the right thing, your recognition will come. It may not come tomorrow, but it will come! In history, for our posterity, Don Sundquist will be a hero. I want him to know that."

And maybe then pigs will fly and the South will rise again and Tennessee Democrats -- who were, after all, able to elect a governor this year, even if only barely -- will be able to hold up their heads once more.

The Twin Towers

Both Mayor Herenton and Rep. Ford, consistent rivals, have a penchant for surprise.

It is still a time when, despite the occasional pro forma denials that come from either side of the equation, the names Ford and Herenton still add up to tension, rivalry, and one-upmanship. In some ways, the rivalry symbolized by these two prominent Memphis political names is exponentially larger these days, though the opportunities for head-on confrontation are now relatively few.

In the last week alone, the public prominence of the one, statewide, and of the other, on the national scene, have served as a reminder of how much A) ambition and B) ability are involved as the chief exemplars of the rivalry, Memphis mayor Willie Herenton and 9th District U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., continue to make moves that are both astonishing and unprecedented.

Note that "Jr." suffix while you can, by the way, because, although the Ford clan patriarch, Harold Ford Sr., is still very much with us -- keeping his hand in local, state, and national politics, even from his main base in Florida -- his son and namesake has cut himself loose from the qualifier. By conscious choice of both Fords, the current congressman now presents himself to the world as just plain Harold Ford.

Except that there is nothing plain about the way the 32-year-old African-American prodigy has gone about establishing himself as a national byword. Though Ford has for years been regarded as a comer by the Washington media, regarded as a likely Senate candidate in the near future and as an aspirant for national office in the longer run, and though he shows up regularly on the network political talk shows as a spokesman for every issue under the sun, his latest move caught everybody flat-footed and prompted a New York Daily News columnist to refer to Ford, without any undue shading, as an "upstart."

Certainly, some such notion must have been in the mind, these last few days, of U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat who had fairly easily forced her Texas colleague Martin Frost out of the running for the office of House minority leader vacated by Missouri's Dick Gephardt after the Democrats' debacle at the polls last week. When Ford declared himself a candidate for the job, contending that the liberal Pelosi represented an old, tired faction that had led the party for too long, Pelosi, elected deputy leader only this year, cracked, "Eight months must seem like a long time when you're young."

That Ford is not only running for the key post of minority leader (one electoral realignment away from being Speaker of the House) but doing so as a centrist adds to the uniqueness of his bid for national power. It also adds to the skepticism of those who, like Herenton, are not true believers.

Last week, only minutes after unveiling his own "surprise" by introducing victorious U.S. Senate candidate Lamar Alexander to a heady crowd of Republicans in Nashville, nominal Democrat Herenton faintly disparaged Rep. Ford's claim to being "a moderate conservative" (hear the sound bite on the Flyer Web site, and contrasted his own "realism" with Ford's ambition for more dramatic political perches.

"Let me give you this analogy. There are people who say, 'Herenton, you've done a good job. You ought to be governor of Tennessee.' It would not be realistic to think I could be governor of Tennessee. You follow me? No one could pat me on the back enough to make me think I could be governor. I don't understand why people get off into this kind of egomania and think they can do these kinds of things. Nobody's going to pump me up and make me think I can do these kinds of things."

The kind of thing Herenton himself is likely to do is cross party lines so as to influence a statewide election, as he did in favoring Alexander over 5th District U.S. Rep. Bob Clement of Nashville, his Democratic partymate. Deploying his son Rodney Herenton and longtime aide Reginald French as openly avowed shock troops in the effort, Herenton made conspicuous appearances with Alexander during the campaign but withheld an explicit acknowledgment of his support until last Tuesday night when he made his well-leaked introduction of the winner and was candid afterward about why.

A Clement win "just wasn't going to happen," Herenton said, and, aside from that, he and Alexander had maintained a relationship of "mutual admiration" for more than a generation, since newly appointed Memphis schools superintendent Herenton first encountered the newly elected governor in 1978. "With all due respect to Bob Clement, for all my friendship for Lamar, I just felt that Lamar was a far superior candidate." Anyhow, said Herenton, "I don't run a partisan race ... I'm not deeply involved in a party."

Acknowledging that his own ability to build bridges to the nominal political opposition had some resemblances to Ford's centrist behavior as a political figure, Herenton said, "I'm just probably a little more forthright in terms of ... if I'm really for a person, what you see is what I really am."

What he and Harold Ford Jr. both are is politicians of growing stature and scope. -- J.B.

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