Politics » Politics Feature

Tangling in Tennessee

With the bailout bill a done deal, national attention focuses on this week's second presidential debate.

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NASHVILLE — The second of two presidential debates to be held within spitting distance of Memphis was scheduled to take place in the state's capital on Tuesday night, and various influential Memphians — including Shelby County mayor A C Wharton, who thereby missed Tuesday's joint city-county forum on consolidation — were on hand to kibitz.

Among those conspicuous by their attendance were former 9th District congressman Harold Ford Jr., who was featured, either as panelist or as subject, in several of the warm-up events. (The political future of Ford, now head of the right/centrist Democratic Leadership Council, became a subject in a Monday forum on "political civility" presided over by Governor Phil Bredesen.)

The debate at Belmont University between Democratic candidate Barack Obama and Republican John McCain came at a crucial point in the presidential race, with various polls showing McCain falling behind Obama. McCain was generally credited with a vigorous performance in the debate in Oxford, Mississippi, two weeks ago, as was his running mate, Sarah Palin, in her contest with Democrat Joe Biden last week in St. Louis.

But in both cases, polls showed the Democrat to have fared better.

(In-depth reports on this and the previous two debate events can also be found at memphisflyer.com.)

• U.S. senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican up for reelection, got some big-time help from Democratic friends last Friday night. Memphis mayor Willie Herenton hosted a reception for Alexander at the Majestic Grille in downtown Memphis in tandem with MPact Memphis, 100 Black Men, and the Black Business Association of Memphis. A C Wharton, who along with Herenton has endorsed Alexander, was also an attendee.

The affair was described by Alexander's staff as "political" but not a campaign event. The senator faces opposition in November from Democratic nominee Bob Tuke of Nashville.

Both in a brief interview and in his prepared remarks, Alexander, the GOP's caucus chairman in the Senate, defended the amended $700 billion bailout bill passed by both houses of Congress and signed on Friday by President George Bush.

Acknowledging that the bailout plan was unpopular with the American public, Alexander compared the situation confronting members of Congress to one in which "a big ole wreck out on the highway" had occurred, blocking other drivers whose first instinct was to get angry and blame the careless drivers who'd caused the accident.

Among the blocked vehicles might be one car "carrying money for your auto loan," others carrying the funds for "your mortgage loan or somebody's farm credit loan," and yet another "carrying the money for your payroll check." Under those circumstances, the senator argued, the only feasible thing to do was to clear the highway of the obstructing vehicles, "getting 'em off the highway," so that ordinary commerce could resume.

That, in essence, was what had been done with the bailout package. "Next week we can have our philosophical discussion about what we can do so as not to have another wreck," Alexander said. "But this was step one in making this economic downturn shorter and easier to get out of."

In his introduction of Alexander, Herenton praised the senator for his work on behalf of a "rescue package vital to this community getting back on its feet." Boasting a friendship with Alexander that went back two decades ("three-and-a-half decades," Alexander would offer by way of correction), the Memphis mayor said, "His service deserves the support of all great American thinkers and all great Tennesseans."

Alexander told reporters the bailout package had been improved during the past week with add-ons. The so-called extenders included several provisions useful to Tennesseans, including a continuation of the state and local sales-tax deduction for Tennessee residents and a solar tax credit that would benefit Sharp Manufacturing.

Asked to appraise last week's debate performance by Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, Alexander said that Palin had performed well in the debate, especially when compared to Democratic opponent Joe Biden, whose Washington insider lingo might strike most Americans as "a foreign language."

The senator added, "That was the second time — the first was the convention — when she had to get up in front of 70 million Americans and perform. Not many people could do that."

• Tennessee's other Republican senator, Bob Corker, had been one of the chief critics of the original $700 billion bailout package but was among those who overwhelmingly approved it last week. Corker said he was willing to abide the newest version of the bill, because the measure had become "a purchase of assets" and not an "expenditure" — a bill for "Main Street" and not "Wall Street."

Overall, said Corker in a conference call with Tennessee reporters on Thursday, the bill was necessary to "create liquidity in the financial system," including the credit markets normally accessed by small businesses and ordinary purchasers.

He had been skeptical when the plan was first outlined almost three weeks ago by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson but, after participating in the revision process himself, had been satisfied by early changes that, he said, protected taxpayers, provided accountability and oversight, and limited exorbitant executive pay.

Most important of all, "100 percent of any income made will go toward paying down the debt," Corker said in a news release. "If our resources are invested properly, the federal government will get all of its money back and taxpayers may even see a return on the investment."

This, he would elaborate on the conference call, distinguished the bailout bill from the Bush-sponsored "stimulus" package enacted earlier this year, which Corker opposed. "That money was thrown into a ditch. This money we have a chance of getting back."

Corker told reporters that the much-vaunted tax-break "extenders" to the bill to attract votes not only weren't an incentive for himself but really didn't change the final package. "They are related but have very little effect on each other. I wish [the extension package] hadn't been included," said Corker, who thought it might attract more Republican members when the House voted again on Friday but could also repulse the "Blue Dog" or conservative Democrats who had been induced to vote for the bill when it first came before the House on Monday.

Indeed, 8th District congressman John Tanner professed outrage at the additions and went through a process of rethinking his original vote for the bill.

"Some of us in this body are so thoroughly disgusted with the other body right now and the way this bill has been handled," Tanner said in a speech on the House floor. "We've found that it doesn't take a lot of political courage to spend other people's money who can't vote."

But when push came to shove, Tanner voted for the bill as amended by the Senate, which passed the House handily this time, 263-171.

"When the [Treasury] secretary came over here with a bill, it was a bailout. It was public risk and private gain," Tanner said during debate on the bill. "By the wisdom of the body here, we put Section 134 — the 'recoupment' clause — in, which now makes it private risk and public gain, which is the way it ought to be. It is now a situation where we're not talking about bailing out Wall Street or the high-flyers. If, at the end of the day, there is a shortfall to the treasury of the United States, then [the financial industry] will be assessed that shortfall, and the treasury will be made whole."

Voting again for the bill, as he did earlier last week, was 9th District congressman Steve Cohen of Memphis, who had pushed vigorously for what may have been a key piece of the add-on bait that switched votes from the "nay" side to the "aye" column.

Cohen had prepared his own legislation raising the deposit-insurance ceiling of the FDIC. The congressman had sought an increase to $200,000. The final bill saw the ceiling rise to $250,000.

The chief exception on the local congressional front was the 7th District's Marsha Blackburn, who voted against the bailout legislation both times it came before the House and appeared frequently on a variety of TV talk shows as a vigorous opponent.

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