One thing I know from 12 years in the Tennessee Senate and another 12 years trying to work with the General Assembly is party politics and how it affects what legislators do. So, with early voting starting this week and a hotly contested U.S. Senate race on the ballot, here’s what I have to say to those who say to me or to you, “I vote for the person.”
Let me be straight up: I really don’t like party politics. To me, it’s a necessary evil. I identify as Republican because the totality of that party’s policy positions offends my conscience less than identifying as a Democrat with its policy positions.1
I don’t like party politics because I’ve experienced it as a person who ran against an incumbent, establishment Republican; as a member of a party’s legislative caucus; and as a lobbyist who has been tromped on by party leaders and had legislation be met with stony silence in committee rooms by legislators who were afraid to buck their leaders.
So, I tell you this from experience: Feel free to vote for who you want without considering the candidate’s party, but don’t think party politics will not come into play if your chosen candidate gets elected.
And for the following reasons, I don’t think Phil Bredesen will be an exception.
My Background With Bredesen
I served in the state Senate during the first four years Bredesen was governor. I have no strong feelings about him personally one way or the other. I found him a thoughtful person in regard to a number of matters.
In fact, I suspect his demeanor and air of thoughtfulness, along with some of the policy positions he took as governor and some he did not take, might lead some voters to believe he will be the breath of fresh air and independent spirit that he talks about on television.
But my thought is that voters should not make too much out of what he did as governor.
‘Reforming’ TennCare Proves Nothing to Me
Yes, Bredesen, once elected governor, did cut tens of thousands of people from the TennCare program, our state’s Medicaid expansion program, and there were some Democrats who were mad at him about that. But let’s put that supposed display of party “independence” in context.
Bredesen was elected after four years of nasty tax fights in the state Legislature. It was an awful four years, and I lived through the whole thing. But a few months before Bredesen was first elected, then House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh forced the House to vote on a personal income tax.
As an alternative to an income tax, the Legislature, in the spring/summer of 2002, passed a 1% sales tax increase and adjusted some other taxes to provide somewhere over $700 million in new revenue for the next governor to work with, Bredesen as it turned out.
But what Democratic leaders found out during the 2002 legislative session is that even the majority of Democratic party voters (at least at that time) hated the income tax. In November’s elections that followed, Democrats got a better dose of reality when their incumbents who voted for the income tax began to pay the price at the polls.
Unfortunately, TennCare’s appetite for money continued unabated following the legislative session and election cycle. So, despite the influx of new revenue, Bredesen was left with only two ways to “fix” TennCare: cut the rolls or pass an income tax either to supplement the sales tax increase or to replace and supplement the sales tax increase.
Given the political bloodbath that had just preceded him, the only thing Bredesen could do was cut TennCare. That is why the Democratically-controlled House and Senate did not resist his efforts to do so. They knew what the real alternative was!
So, don’t be fooled into thinking Bredesen’s “reform” of TennCare is some kind of evidence that he’s willing to make hard decisions that buck his own party. His party leaders didn’t want another push for an income tax and, in a few years, the prior push cost them the majority in both chambers of the state Legislature.
Bredesen Didn’t Push Divisive Social Issues
Some may think Bredesen is “safe” because he won’t be too bad on social issues like abortion and making one’s sexual activities a protected civil right. Some may even think he’ll protect religious liberty. They most likely think that because he didn’t make a big deal of these issues as governor.
Again, don’t assume too much.
During the first four years Bredesen was governor, he didn’t have to deal with any of these issues because the Jimmy Naifeh-led Democratic majority in the House killed anything that social conservatives were for. So, Bredesen never had to dirty his hands on those things. Never had to address them or veto them.
His last four years, Republicans had a slim numerical majority in the House, but quasi-Republican Speaker Kent Williams made sure two of those four years were “bi-partisan,” meaning he treated the Democrats who elected him speaker well. Committees were evenly balance and nothing controversial could still get through to Bredesen.
And remember, prolife legislation was largely off the board because the Tennessee Supreme Court had made legislation on that topic taboo under the state’s constitution.
Concluding Thoughts—The Viciousness of Party Politics
You can reject what I’ve just said, but don’t ever think that the Democratic Party and its leaders in the U.S. Senate won’t do everything in their power to put Bredesen in their hip pocket and make him toe the party line. His asserted independence and seeming disinterest in divisive social issues will not last long, if at all.
For 24 years I’ve seen how caucus leaders in both parties can punish those who are not loyal. It’s very real here in Tennessee, and I have no doubt it’s much worse in D.C.
You’ve been forewarned. Vote wisely, not naively.
- For an entertaining take on Republicans from a conservative Christian viewpoint, check out Stupid Elephant Tricks: The Other Progressive Party’s War on Christianity by a friend of mine.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. Read David’s complete bio.
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