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-dont 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 Tennesee, too. There were significant party losses in the state House and Senate. And there was Willie Herenton, the African-American mayor of Memphis.
Herenton has been a social symbol many times in his lifetime. A Golden Gloves boxing champion in his impoverished youth who got to be superintendent of his once rigidly-segregated citys 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 its 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 mayors 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 Alexander campaign, showing up as the guest of honor at a major Alexander 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 Alexanders victory celebration in Nashville Tuesday night when the Memphis mayor and increasingly nominal Democrat unveiled a surprise that shouldnt have been any surprise at all, introducing the Senator-elect to the crowd and telling all and sundry later on that he hadnt though much of Bob Clement as a Senatorial candidate but that, even if he had, he regarded himself as a non-partisan official who didnt 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 mayors 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 -- didnt 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 Thompsons vacated Senate seat himself, made a couple of pro forma appearances on the Nashville congressmans behalf, but the family saved its major effort for gubernatorial candidate Bredesen.
THATS 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) all along. (One of the celebrants at Bredesens Hilton post-election bash was Dave Goetz, longtime chief lobbyist for the states 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 healthcare entrepeneur an HMO millionaire and posing as a populist defender of the common man against him. Another tack taken by Hilleary -- that Bredesens professed disblief 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 exÑrival Sundquists 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, Bredesens impressive early figures from the GOP bailiwick of East Tenessee on election night should have signaled a rout of Hilleary. That they didnt, 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 Bredesens other Democratic rival, Charles Smith, had done some evangelizing on Bredesens behalf, complaned on election night, "They didnt do anything in Middle Tennessee. Its like they skipped over us and spent all their attention on West and East Tennessee. And thats what made it so close!
Bredesens 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 werent as many of them in those parts as has generally been supposed.
Even in Shelby County, Bredesens 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 of last springs legislation session, as well as a feeling of alienation from figures like Stuart Brunson, Bredesens campaign director and a holdover from the states presidential campaign in 2000, and Bob Corney, 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 didnt listen to anybody, and they walled themselves off from real voters and real party people. They wouldnt pay attention, and they almost blew it the same way they blew the presidential race !
TO BE SURE, the newly elected congressman from Hillearys 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 states House delegation -- would seem to run counter to the national trend favoring George W. Bush and the GOP.
Except that it was a tossup 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 partys 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 rrecent 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 tin-horn dictator with 20 million starving people was a threat like Adolf Hitler! They dont 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, anyhow -- party loyalty is still live 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 nations 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.
Theres 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 rear view mirror. It may not work as well in straitened times, even for so distinguished and personable a figure as Alexander.
There is some evidence, indeed, that even the state income tax (which both proponents and opponents recognized to be redistributionist, to some degree) was never as unpopular among Tennesseans as the organized public protests indicated. Joe Hall of the Ingram Group mused on election night as he surveyed the results of legislative races: One surprising thing about the election was that the income tax per se seemed to have little to do with the outcome, even in races where a Democrat was unseated.
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 the great outcast of this election year, Governor Don Sundquist, the Don Quixote of an utterly squashed tax reform initiative and the unwanted lame duck who was made a fall guy in both Hillearys and Breedesens TV commercials. (When Bowers suggested at one point in her reelection race that Sundquist campaign for her in Memphis, the governor sheepishly replied, Kathryn, Im not sure you really want me to!)
Said Democrat DeBerry of the GOPs 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 head once more.