If popularity is the mark of leadership, then Phil Bredesen has been a mind-blowing governor. Polling last summer, midway through the final year of his eight-year run, found Bredesen's statewide approval ratings in the mid-70s — rarified air for any politician in these fractious times. And you don't get numbers like that without broad underlying appeal. Bredesen drew favorables at 72 percent or better from Democrats, Republicans and independents, and from respondents in each of the state's three grand divisions.
So it's hardly surprising that the winding down of Bredesen's time in office brings a cacaphony of voices singing the man's praises as a prudent manager and deft practitioner of tax-break capitalism who governed from the ideological middle. But is this really the honest Bredesen legacy? Sycophantic editorialists may conflate popularity with statesmanship, but big poll numbers speak mainly to the governor's affinity for moderation and his allergy to controversy and principle. An honest accounting looks past the hagiographic narrative he and his acolytes cultivate, taking in some hard facts and numbers.
For Bredesen, that inevitably begins and ends with health care. The conventional narrative frames Bredesen as a wonkish grind who mustered the courage to tame a TennCare monster whose fiscal bloat threatened the future of mankind.
But "courage" here is really just a euphemism for callousness — a willingness to toy with thousands of lives in the name of fiscal discipline. Sure, unchecked growth in TennCare spending risked alarming cost overruns. Even so, it takes a special kind of hubris to conclude that the only tenable alternative is disenrolling 170,000 financially and medically needy people — the rough equivalent of the entire population of Knoxville — in what may have been the largest single drop in the ranks of health-insured Americans ever.
Bredesen's "courage" on health care also turned out to be a euphemism for narcissism — rank intolerance for dissent by public health advocates. During the height of the battle over TennCare's future in late 2004, we assumed that Bredesen was negotiating public policy in good faith with advocates such as the Tennessee Justice Center, who were actually standing up for the poor and the sick. Yet it was Bredesen's own finance commissioner, Dave Goetz, who betrayed the fiction of it all when he wrote "To hell with TJC" in an email to TennCare's director, adding a not-so-veiled threat: "We need to significantly lower their ability to stop us by draining their resources."
In some of the interviews he's been giving in recent weeks as his term winds down, Bredesen touts the Cover Tennessee program he hatched in 2006, a year after cutting all of those folks from the TennCare roll. Bredesen pitched CoverTN as a route to "making affordable health insurance available to as many Tennesseans as possible" without wasting resources on "the extras that drive up the cost of health care." Apparently those "extras" include actual health insurance, to judge by CoverTN's draconian coverage limits and lack of protection against catastrophic health expenses. It's no surprise that CoverTN has enrolled only a fraction of the number of Tennesseans its founders predicted.
Is the state better off after eight years of Phil Bredesen? From 2002 to 2009, on "the watch" of our health care überwonk, the percentage of women in the state without health insurance coverage has gone from 12.4 percent to 18 percent. A Kaiser Foundation commission on the uninsured in 2009 identified 15 states that have either enacted or are moving toward universal health coverage; Tennessee is nowhere on the list.
Poverty is up on Bredesen's watch, with the percentage of Tennesseans living below the federal poverty line up for both individuals and families between 2002 and 2007 (the last year for which full data are available). Lest you think we're just mirroring national trends, family poverty actually declined a bit in this period on the national level, as it did in many comparable states, including Kansas, Louisiana and Virginia. Our system of taxation remains, of course, deeply regressive.
Bredesen puts a lot of energetic discourse into education, but are we a better educated state after eight years of Phil Bredesen? Census figures show that the rise in the percentage of Tennesseans with college degrees in the seven-year period ending in 2007 ranks in the bottom 10 states. Such paragons of cosmopolitan achievement as Alabama, West Virginia, Arkansas and South Carolina each have seen greater percentage gains in their college-educated populations than Tennessee.
For those of us who think that a great governor is a socially progressive governor, Bredesen has been a profile in moral gutlessness. He was meek on the subject of same-sex adoption, voted to amend the state constitution to outlaw marriage equality, did little to help slow down the assault by the Tennessee GOP on reproductive rights, and found himself unable to assume a moral posture on investment of state pension funds in Sudan.
And don't get me started on Bredesen's basic level of malpractice with respect to the governor's role as head of his party. Is there a human in the state who thinks that the Tennessee Democratic Party is in equal or better shape than it was eight years ago?
Certainly Phil Bredesen has worked hard at being governor these past eight years. He ran a generally ethical administration, said nice things about education, funded pre-K, appointed some good judges, left no corporate tax break behind, eluded controversy on social issues, and leaves state government's balance sheet in better shape than he found it and a good bit better off than many other states.
These things make him a markedly average governor, though, not a first-rate one. After eight years, our popular, risk-averse chief executive leaves a state whose gains in social, educational and cultural progress are still measured in relation to the bottom 10 or 15 states in most categories. Granted, the underlying problems are complex and difficult, and solving them is beyond the reach of one eight-year gubernatorial run. But a great governor will be one who acts boldly to remake Tennessee's social, economic, cultural and political order, not one who revels in having been a responsible steward of the status quo.The Mayor
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