NASHVILLE, MEMPHIS — The two major political parties each had major events last week, and the concerns that dominated those events provided clear statements as to how the parties see themselves and their current place in the world.
On Thursday night, the Tennessee Republican Party held its annual Statesmen's dinner in Nashville; the rank-and-file party members and sympathizers in attendance filled the cavernous ballroom of the capital city's newish Music City Center, and the party's elected officials, party gentry, and declared gubernatorial candidates were numerous enough that not all of them could be afforded speaking time on stage.
Among those personages who did make it to the dais were Scott Golden of Jackson, the state party chairman, who understandably beamed with pride as he informed the crowd that this year's GOP banquet was the largest in the history of the state; U.S. Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, who reviewed elements of national policy; and Governor Bill Haslam, who noted with bemused delight that, for all the accepted verity that Tennessee was now deep-dyed red in its politics, he was actually the first Republican Governor to be able to work in harness with a Republican legislature.
And the featured speaker of this star-studded GOP celebration was Vice President Mike Pence.
If there were moments in the evening's celebration that sounded somewhat like gloating, that, too, was surely understandable. This was, after all, a party that — from the standpoint of Tennessee, anyhow — seemed to have won every prize worth taking.
In his remarks, Pence laid it on thick, invoking specters and straw figures from the other side that trouble party-line Republicans — former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "unelected bureaucrats" operating from "the comfort of taxpayer-funded metal desks," the "death tax" (i.e., the inheritance tax), and, of course, "the Obamacare nightmare" (aka the Affordable Care Act).
And, as Pence described him in an extended and soaring apostrophe, President Donald Trump was not the dissembling, self-absorbed, and inexperienced figure of so much media coverage, but an almost regally accomplished executive, a "man of his word ... a man of action," who had achieved "remarkable success, restoring security and prosperity," and who stood "without apology as the leader of the free world."
Such is the nature of self-congratulatory banquets.
Meanwhile, there were palpable signs of life and renewed spirit among the state's Democrats. State House Majority Leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley declared for governor, thus pitting him against former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in a 2018 primary that will be the first truly contested one in recent memory involving prominent and respected Democratic Party figures.
And, in Memphis last week, the newly reconstituted Shelby County Democratic Party held two spirited forums before sizeable crowds in which five candidates for the party chairmanship made their case for election.
The five — Shelby County Schools official Corey Strong, political consultant Ken Taylor, charter school operator Anthony Anderson, freelance consultant Thurston Smith, and former University of Memphis law professor Larry Pivnick — all had their moments, but it was Strong who emerged victorious in balloting Saturday at the IBEW union hall on Madison.
The energy of the contest, coupled with the number of new faces among the party's 150-strong elected Grass Roots Council, offered evidence that, in Shelby County at least, Democrats might be ready to mount a serious challenge to Republican hegemony.