“…It was a grievous fault, and grievously hath Caesar answered it.” — Shakespeare, Julius Caesar.
Actually, "awkwardly" would be a better word than "grievously" to describe the way Bill Haslam answered reporters’ questions on Thursday when they grilled him on his astonishing volte-face this week on the issue of doing away with gun permits in Tennessee.
For the consequences to be truly grievous, Republican Haslam would have to be demonstrably in danger of losing the governor’s race to Democrat Mike McWherter, and, though many things can happen in the 12 days left before voting closes on November 2, Haslam’s presumed edge in this GOP-friendly election year is probably large enough to survive.
But you can’t blame McWherter for trying. The Jackson businessman, son of a well-loved Tennessee governor of a generation back but a political Unknown Quantity in his own right, is doing his best to highlight what has to be reckoned a Haslam gaffe of major proportions — one that potentially raises doubts about the Knoxville mayor’s capacities for leadership.
At a Thursday morning press conference, held in front of the Convention Center, where both he and Haslam were scheduled to address a meeting of the state’s district attorneys, McWherter verbally blistered his rival for “going over the top and over a cliff” at a meeting of the state Firearms Association in Nashville on Monday in Nashville.
Hectored by a gun-rights advocate on his attitude toward a proposed bill that would do away with the need for carry permits in Tennessee, Haslam had gone back and forth on the issue verbally but ultimately was pressed into saying, “if the legislature passed it and brought that to me, I said I would sign it.”
Something of a shock wave developed as news reports about the incident got out, and McWherter, who had been trailing Haslam badly in published polls, wasted no time in responding to this unexpected opportunity. He told the assembled media Thursday that the incident “speaks to the core of his character,” and he castigated his rival for a “lack of common sense and total disregard for public safety,” one which would put Tennesseans in “jeopardy.”
Lumping in Haslam’s response on the gun issue with what he said had been reversals on other controversial matters, the Democratic nominee accused Haslam of “pandering” and “flip-flopping” and of being “willing to say anything to any group at any time in order to get elected.” In unusually strong language, McWherter went so far as to say Haslam would “sell his soul” in order to get votes.
Reporters had been prepped well in advance about the McWherter press conference, and the Democrat’s choice of location and time — directly in front of the Main St. entrance to the Convention Center and fifteen minutes before Haslam’s scheduled remarks to the D.A.’s — indicated that McWherter hoped to be able to confront his opponent directly.
The situation recalled a circumstance during the 2006 U.S. Senate race between Democrat Harold Ford Jr. and Republican Bob Corker, when Ford made an “ambush” appearance at a scheduled Corker press conference at Wilson Air Services in Memphis. Most observers credited Corker with a win in the encounter — one that might have been pivotal in determining his election.
Whether forewarned or not, Haslam had entered the Convention Center through a less used entrance on the other side of the building. He delivered a generalized prepared pitch to the assembled district attorneys and got one audience question — from Michael McCusker, an assistant D.A. locally, who asked Haslam his position on the gun-permit issue.
Haslam gave a variation of the same answer he had given at the Firearms Association meeting — that he preferred the permit law “the way it is now,” but he would sign a bill eliminating the need for permits if the legislature presented one to him.
And Haslam held to that position when cornered by reporters for a subsequent availability outside the Convention Center meeting room.
“My personal opinion is that they [permit requirements] should stay the way they are... I’ll let the House and Senate debate that [a bill abolishing the permit system], and I’ll let them know what my opinion is, but if they pass that, I’ll sign it.”
Asked about the prospect of a veto, Haslam noted that a simple legislative majority could override a gubernatorial veto. Was he not sending a go-ahead signal to proponents of an anti-permit measure? “Well, I will sign it. But also, again, I think in that process I’ll let it be known that I like the system the way it is now. And I’ll let people know that, too.”
Was not his position something less than “leaderly?”
“I don’t buy that. Again, I think what a governor has to do and say is, Here’s my view of the situation. Here’s the things that I believe. In the end if you all pass it after deliberate discussion, then I will sign it.
Haslam was asked about McWherter’s “sell-his-soul” remark.
For once, the usually imperturbable Haslam bristled. “That’s 100 percent wrong, and I actually take offense at that.” He said his record as mayor and his mode of campaigning had shown him to be “the realistic one” on the budget and other matters, “not promising everything.”
Haslam repeated that he was offended by McWherter’s charge. “To say what he said is irresponsible.” And at that point an aide called an end to the press conference, cutting off other possible potential follow-up questions, such as whether Haslam might have tethered himself irrevocably to an implicit promise on the matter of eliminating gun permits — and to a campaign issue that, with Halloween on the way and the election close behind, could haunt him yet.