At one point during Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen’s solo appearance at Rhodes College on Thursday night, a Q&A affair that was originally intended to be a debate between himself and Republican opponent Marsha Blackburn, a questioner in the audience suggested that, if 80 percent of succeeding at something consisted of just showing up, the former two-term Governor might get 80 percent of the votes from those who turned out.
Bredesen suggested hopefully that, if he did really well, he might get as much as 82 percent of the audience vote. In retrospect, either figure seemed entirely reasonable.Not unexpectedly under the circumstances, it was clearly a Bredesen crowd, warmed up by lengthy preliminary remarks from young Rhodesian Democrats and, as the tenor of audience questions indicated, unmistakably partisan in its expectations.
Indeed, Bredesen — as cautiously centrist in his remarks at Rhodes as he is in his TV ads — may have been the most moderate Democrat present for the affair, held at the McNeil Concert Hall at Rhodes.
Example: Asked his attitude toward President Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh for the U.S. Supreme Court, Bredesen delivered the distinctly nonpartisan answer that it was not the business of the Senate to “re-play previous elections” (i.e., to attempt to void the preference of an elected president) but rather to “advise and consent” on a nomination, with primary regard to questions of qualification, ethics, and temperament.
In so saying, however, Bredesen availed himself of a mild reproach of opponent Blackburn for declaring herself for Kavanaugh within “minutes” of Trump’s nomination of the jurist. For the record, she has only this week in a press release demanded that Bredesen also declare himself on Kavanaugh, a request unlikely to be honored.
Blackburn’s disinclination to accept what had been an invitation from Rhodes and other sponsors to debate Bredesen remains something of a mystery. The 7th District congresswoman has also turned down an invitation to a debate in Chattanooga, but has accepted later debate opportunities scheduled for Nashville and Knoxville.
Hence the reconfiguration of Thursday night’s event as a “‘Memphis Matters’ Ideas Forum” — an hour-long well-attended affair moderated by veteran Democrat Deidre Malone and featuring Bredesen alone, The ex-governor was consistently middle-of-the-road in his responses but took such shots at Blackburn as that posture permitted.
As an example, his very first answer — to a question about the most important thing he could do for Memphis — was simple and to the point: “show up and listen to what people in Memphis have to say” (a sally which, appropriately, earned him a hand from the audience).
What Bredesen himself had to say was, as indicated, somewhat circumspect and non-controversial. He repeated one of his TV commercials almost word-for-word as he explained that he was running for the Senate not to offer ritual opposition to Trump but to represent Tennessee, and that, for example, he could give the President “elbow room” and support his efforts to reach an understanding with North Korea but oppose Trump’s tariff-based trade war.
Dutifully, Bredesen offered understanding and support when asked about Black Lives Matter and the “moral obligation” to assist Dreamers. His most distinctive proposal (and one no doubt aimed at his audience) was to reduce student-loan debt by stripping the infinite varieties of available loan packages down to a single variety with a 3 percent long-term interest rate and without any means testing. That latter provision would make possible simplified loan applications of “three or four lines," Bredesen said.
Asked what the nation’s biggest problem was, Bredesen said it was the inability of Washington to get anything accomplished, and he boasted his own ability to deal with things “where the rubber meets the road,” citing as an example his handling as governor of TennCare, maintaining the state healthcare system but cutting the ever-burgeoning program down to size, budget-wise.
The verdict of state voters, Bredesen said, had been to reelect him to a second term with a majority in every one of Tennessee’s 95 counties. To be sure, that outcome, in 2006, was over a GOP sacrificial lamb — not a high-profile Republican like the self-declared Trumpian Blackburn — but it was still memorable (and recent) enough to encourage not only local and statewide Democrats but those in the nation at large, to dream the dream of a party restoration in border-state Tennessee.
Which is why Jonathan Martin of The New York Times
was on hand for Thursday’s event at Rhodes and why pundits and reporters from all over will be following this race to its conclusion.