Within weeks -- no, days -- of last November's nationwide rout of Democratic political hopes, Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen started being touted in all kinds of unexpected places as a man who not only might be considered a potential presidential candidate in 2008 but fully deserved to be -- in fact, would be if the Democrats knew what they were doing.
So said the Los Angeles Times, which ranked Bredesen on a short list of presidential prospects "seen widely as effective communicators of a populist Democratic message in GOP-leaning states." So said The New York Times and USA Today, both of which had Bredesen on their presidential lists within a week or two of the election. And so too, after a spell, said The Wall Street Journal, which seconded these and other nominations and found cause to call Bredesen, at only the halfway point of his first term, "probably the most popular governor in Tennessee history." For a politician once regarded as charismatically challenged (in his losing 1994 gubernatorial race, the then Nashville mayor was widely regarded as more aloof than Republican opponent Don Sundquist), this was pretty heady stuff.
All these beacons of the national media establishment seemed to be engaged in a contest to see who could write the most effusive accolade -- though that prize rightly belongs to The New Republic, the venerable organ of the conservative left which only a month ago made Bredesen its cover boy over a large headline reading, "Southern Man: Is Phil Bredesen the Future of the Democratic Party? Or the Last of a Dying Breed?"
Ay, there's the rub. Though that second part of the NR's subhead was inaccurate -- whatever else Phil Bredesen is in Tennessee politics, this sometimes austere, sometimes diffident native of upstate New York doesn't belong to any of the state's time-honored "breeds," living or dead -- the implicit caveat is well taken. For, as the Los Angeles Times' Ron Brownstein noted in a follow-up article to his paper's first trumpet blast, the ongoing struggle between the Tennessee governor and various determined adversaries over the future of TennCare, the state-run health-care system in which the governor has proposed serious reductions, could doom his prospects for higher political office. Deadpanned Brownstein: "[I]t wouldn't be easy for Bredesen to step onto the national stage with TennCare's blood on his suit."
The crisis over TennCare has become increasingly dire. In February 2004, Bredesen proposed to limit some of TennCare's benefits and tighten its controls while leaving its rolls more or less intact. Several circumstances frustrated that scheme -- ranging from the Bush administration's cuts in Medicaid matching funds to opposition from TennCare advocates like Gordon Bonnyman of the Tennessee Justice Center, who declined either to repudiate some consent decrees left over from the Sundquist administration or to forswear the possibility of class-action suits. Late last year, Bredesen proposed the more draconian solution of paring some 323,000 adult patients from the rolls, including many who were otherwise uninsurable. He promptly found himself blocked by a Middle Tennessee federal judge, William J. Haynes Jr., who will adjudicate the matter at a hearing this spring. Meanwhile, the Bredesen administration has filed an appeal of Haynes' action.
Brownstein's was not the only note of caution that began to crop up in the media chorus -- though the right-leaning Wall Street Journal, among others, found in the circumstance of the TennCare battle evidence of Bredesen's redeeming "courage."
Courageous he may be, or maybe just fatalistically confident. Whatever the case, Bredesen is -- in the currently fashionable phrase -- comfortable in his own skin, and increasingly willing to risk it elsewhere -- in travels both in and outside the state. Last week, he came to Memphis, where, predictably, he was asked about complaints from two fellow Democrats, state senator Steve Cohen and state representative Kathryn Bowers, alleging faults ranging from ignorance to insensitivity to downright dissembling.
The main complaint of Cohen, a longtime sparring partner of the governor's, has to do with Bredesen's announced intention to divert what the governor calls "excess lottery revenues" -- $25 million worth -- to pay for a proposed new program in early childhood education (pre-K, in the vernacular). Cohen accuses the governor of having "low-balled" and manipulated revenue projections to drain off money that should go to fund scholarships. Bowers' chief grievance, shared somewhat by Cohen, are Bredesen's proposals to slash TennCare. The two Memphis legislators are co-sponsors of a cigarette-tax bill that, they say, would raise enough money to stave off the TennCare cuts altogether but which the governor has declined to support.
There are personal elements to the conflict, especially in the case of Cohen, whose long and successful 17-year crusade to establish a state lottery has consistently put him on a collision course with the governor over issues relating to control of the lottery. But the two legislators also see, probably correctly, that the governor represents a challenge to established Democratic orthodoxies.
"What kind of Democrat is he? He acts more like a Republican," scoffed Cohen last week. And Bowers, who is just now seeking an open state senate seat in a special election, has also expressed skepticism. She has called for organized protests against the governor's reform plan, which she and others maintain would in effect dismantle TennCare and revert the state to dependence on traditional Medicaid -- the bare-bones system departed from by TennCare's originator, Governor Ned McWherter, in the early '90s. "Thank God for Judge Haynes," Bowers said in Memphis earlier this month. "We're not going to sit on our hands and let them take 323,000 people off the rolls."
In a session with reporters after an address to the East Memphis Rotary Club at The Peabody last week, Bredesen once again discounted the Cohen/Bowers cigarette tax as a remedy. "Sure, you could raise $250 million in taxes, and it'll buy you six more months of the program, but it won't solve any underlying problems," he said, crediting "health-care politics" for the impasse over TennCare. "I'm sorry that it's turned out this way," the governor continued, "but I don't know what other course we could take."
The governor's position on TennCare goes beyond questions of logistics or financing. He has an underlying philosophy. Two weeks ago he went to Raleigh, North Carolina, to speak at an "Emerging Issues Forum" at the invitation of former Democratic governor James Hunt. Addressing the larger theme of government-sponsored health care, he said, among other things:
"The way in which Medicaid pays for services -- put a lot of money in a bucket, and providers and beneficiaries take out what and when they want, and demand more when the pot is empty -- the way in which Medicaid pays for services has more in common with a socialist economy than the common-sense economic and business principles that do such a good job in allocating resources efficiently in other parts of our American life."
Not only did Democrats like Cohen and Bowers take umbrage at that assertion -- reported in headlines like this one in the Chattanooga Times-Free Press: "Medicaid reflects socialism" -- but an ordinary party cadre like Memphis activist/blogger Steve Steffens was moved to fury after encountering news of Bredesen's remarks. Steffens e-mailed his network: "Socialism??????? It's called TAKING CARE OF PEOPLE!!!!!!!! Can we start a recall petition?"
Somewhere between the anger of his detractors and the praise of his presidential boosters is the real Bredesen, a work-in-progress politician whose current celebrity -- or notoriety -- must astonish even the man himself. A transplanted Yankee who came to Nashville as a young man, he made a fortune as a health-care entrepreneur and finally scratched his way into public life, becoming his adopted city's two-term mayor after some early political reverses. Widely credited with a major role in creating the Nashville boom of the 1990s, Bredesen made his city big-league for real by landing the NFL Tennessee Titans. Along with other accomplishments, that was good enough to give Bredesen a victory, with a bare 51 percent of the vote over his Republican opponent, Congressman Van Hilleary, in the 2002 governor's race.
Sitting down with a shirt-sleeved Bredesen for an end-of-week interview at the state Capitol last Friday, I began by putting things to him this way, more or less: What if you were a Martian political scientist and had only a textbook definition to go by of what a Democrat was and what a Republican was and you were asked to look at the last two gubernatorial administrations in Tennessee? Would you not say that Don Sundquist, the nominal Republican who attempted to shore up and expand programs like TennCare and who sought a state income tax to do so, was a typical Democrat? And would you not say the current governor, having a) slashed the budget across-the-board his first two years, having b) begun to chop away at previously sacrosanct programs, and c) resisted new taxes relentlessly, was a Republican?
"I've heard the analogy before," Bredesen replied. "If you accept that sort of definition, I guess that makes some sense. But I think being a Democrat is a lot more complicated than that. Democrats had their roots in small government. That's what Thomas Jefferson was all about. I like to think it's a matter of who you're looking out for. Democrats have sided with the working people as opposed to the elite. I think a lot of things I have done can be seen as siding with working people."
I asked the governor about last year's workers' compensation reforms, which reduced benefit levels and which Bredesen forced through the legislature despite audible misgivings from a number of Democrats. He was denounced by the likes of Mike Turner, a union official and Democratic state representative from Nashville and upbraided publicly by former party chairman William Farmer, a trial lawyer from Lebanon, who told Bredesen to his face that he regretted not having supported Republican Hilleary in the 2002 election.
Bredesen: "It's vastly more important for working people to have jobs than to make sure that one of Mike Turner's union reps got the highest possible payout if they have some injury on the job, adding to the remuneration of people who were injured way beyond what was sustainable in business. One of the things that I've got to do in the state is to modernize the economy, get more knowledge-based jobs, more diplomas. The world's full of 50-year-old people who have worked in manufacturing jobs all their lives. That stuff is fleeing the state; some of it is going offshore. I think it [the workers' comp reforms] is very much targeted at the needs of real working people. Bill Farmer might have gotten mad, but he's a wealthy lawyer, not a blue-collar working person.
"Most real people out there in the world understand that this is a competitive world. And you've got to make it reasonably attractive for people. And if you let one group of people sort of get more of the system than they're entitled to, it hurts everybody."
Alluding to the recent run of media attention, Bredesen shrugged. "I don't see myself as a national figure. I'm not running for president. I'm not doing anything out there to try to enhance that or anything else. I'm 60 years old at the prime of my career. I'm governor of a state and have got a lot of ideas about things like health care. Would I like to be a player on the national stage as we redesign Medicaid? Sure. From that standpoint, I'm very happy and comfortable. This is my time to take my experience from my years in business and politics and try to do that on a larger stage."
What about his now famous description, on stage in North Carolina, of Medicaid as "socialism"? Bredesen sighed: "I regret using that word. I was trying to explain the funding mechanism. That's a good example of my not seeing that people will look through things like that and find a headline. It was a tiny part of the speech in which I was trying to explain that Medicaid and health insurance are not really insurance anymore."
In an effort to explain what he meant, Bredesen in effect recapitulated a portion of his North Carolina speech: "It's as if somebody's house burns down, you put a little money in the pot and there's a way to rebuild it. Health-care financing and Medicaid today is a huge transfer mechanism, with people taking out money not once in a lifetime but every month. And it's an inefficient mechanism."
The governor continued: "It's like going to Kroger; you walk down an aisle and pick out whatever you want. There's no price on anything. It gets rung up, you don't see the total, and the bill gets sent to the government, never to be heard from again. That kind of throw-money-in-the-pot-and-everybody-take-out-what-you-need approach smacks more of the socialist economy than of the kind of economic system that's worked so well in this country."
In other words, no mistake. The governor had said in North Carolina what he meant to say, and the headline writers and outraged fellow Democrats had got it right. Bredesen had challenged some of the very precepts that underlie not only the modern welfare state but the post-FDR Democratic Party itself. Though in his speeches he seems -- and no doubt is -- quite sincere in regretting his inability to get away with the relatively modest trimmings of TennCare he proposed a year ago, he is clearly ill at ease with the same old same old Democratic philosophy -- the one caricatured by traditional conservatives as tax-and-spend.
Political observers arched their eyebrows when Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn, then a Republican state senator, proposed across-the-board cuts of 5 percent to solve the state's fiscal problem during the last years of the Sundquist administration, which was characterized by storms over the GOP governor's futile quest for an income tax. When Bredesen, also an income-tax opponent, came to power, he upped Blackburn's ante -- imposing 9 percent across-the-board cuts his first year and another 5 percent the second year.
The new governor did secure increases in education, which continues to be the proclaimed focus of his administration. The no-nonsense former business executive also held his budget hearings in public -- firing state Children's Services director Mike Miller the afternoon after that unlucky official's lackluster presentation of his budget component at a morning session.
The governor himself is increasingly an open book. On the evening before our interview, Bredesen had addressed a dinner audience consisting of members of the Tennessee Press Association -- assuring them, among other things, that he shared their wishes for candor in government and open disclosure of public matters. In the question and answer session that followed, he was asked about a number of those public matters, including TennCare and the lottery. Responding to a question about higher-than-expected academic failures among the first year's crop of scholarship students, Bredesen indulged himself in a revealing aside. He attributed the flunk rate to "cultural shock," the same sort he had once confronted as an undergraduate at Harvard.
He elaborated on Friday: "I don't know if it's a perfect analogy. But for me the trip to college was a huge cultural divide. I've never really spoken of this, but my college years were not happy years, particularly. I didn't quite shake the straw out of my jacket, but I came as close to that as you can get. I came from a high school with 39 people in it. No one had ever gone to an Ivy League school. Half of the kids [at Harvard] were from big private schools. Everybody had more money than I did. It was cultural shock, that's the only word for it.
"It's the same for some kid who grew up in a family with high-school-educated parents, when suddenly he's at the University of Tennessee or Vanderbilt. It's just a huge step across the divide for people like that. And I'd like to support them. It's more complicated than how well you do in Russian or math."
A propos Harvard and cultural shocks, that morning's edition of The Wall Street Journal had featured an article about the difficulties being endured by that university's president, Lawrence Summers, who had become enmeshed in a public controversy about gender differences. His problems, suggested the article, had more to do with clashes between former corporate exec Summers, used to ruling over hierarchies, and a tenured faculty which regarded itself as the president's equal. Did the former health-care executive find himself in a similar predicament with the dons of the Tennessee General Assembly?
Bredesen: "I hope it's not quite as bad as his problem. I just think that things like TennCare come out better if somebody's running the ship. As mayor, I had a period of learning how things are done. And in the health-care business, I was always dealing with doctors and professionals. Government is not better or worse, just different from business. You've got to know to make things work."
It has always been clear that this governor thinks he knows how to make things work -- and maybe, yes, a few things to say about it elsewhere than in Tennessee. Bredesen elaborated on his increasing national visibility.
"Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster, used to tell me when I was mayor, 'You ought to have fun with it. Call somebody up if you have to. You're the mayor of a significant city. Go do it, get out there. Make a speech in Nebraska or somewhere.' As mayor I never did that. I had my head down working on things like the Titans. But the last few months I looked up and said, you know, I'm here. I hope to be governor for eight years. This is the peak of my career. I'd like to relax and go out and do that kind of stuff. I think I've got some ideas to offer to the world, about health care in particular, and I'm going to do that. But that's not the same as running for president. I'd just like to make my views known on a wider scale.
"I think we're doing some good things here, and I think in some areas we've found a third way. I'm not highly partisan. I take from both sides of the aisle. Republicans want to make cuts; Democrats want to put more money into things -- all that's a sterile debate at this point. There is a third way. We can apply the principles of the American economy, all the things that we've learned in last 30 or 40 years, and not try to take programs rooted in the 1960s and added to over time and say that's the model for the future. So yeah, I'm very interested in finding a third way."
Meanwhile, how's he doing with his constituents? The most recent poll, from the Middle Tennessee State University College of Mass Communications and released last week, shows that 62.4 percent of respondents across the state approved of the governor's performance. Not bad, considering that President Bush was reelected with national approval ratings that hovered in the 40s and 50s. The poll highlighted a couple of caveats, however. Perhaps ominously, some 53 percent of those polled said they disapproved of Bredesen's plans regarding TennCare. And as Cohen pointed out, the governor's lowest regional approval ratings -- 49 percent -- were in West Tennessee, home to a disproportionate number of low-income, normally Democratic voters.
To vary a clichÇ, Bredesen is unlikely to cry very hard on his way to his campaign war chest, which, according to news reports this week, contains a freshly collected $2.5 million. Former gubernatorial foe Hilleary is looking at a U.S. Senate race, and no other name Republican seems remotely interested in opposing the governor in 2006. GOP leaders confide privately that they haven't yet figured out how to confront a leader who seems to have enacted so much of their own platform. And for all the grumbling in Democratic ranks, most party members seem gratified merely to have one of their own doing so well.
Whatever political fate befalls Phil Bredesen, either statewide or nationally, he is definitely not, in that New Republic cover phrase, the "last of a dying breed." For better or worse, Bredesen's kind of political DNA seems brand-new. n