Disgusted Tennessee Democrats say killing the state party could actually make it stronger 

Don't Fear the Reaper

Don't Fear the Reaper

Like a dysfunctional family trying to patch things up, Tennessee's Democratic leaders are holding cathartic meetings to writhe in agony over past defeats and plot their comeback.

Organized by the usual insiders and moneymen, the meetings are full of talk about the urgent necessity to reach out to the Democrats' rainbow of constituencies.

"It's not at all exclusive," says former party chairman Bob Tuke, one of the leaders. "In fact, we're trying to be the opposite of that. We're trying to get input from as many people of varying points of view, ages, backgrounds, men, women, labor, all of our important constituencies, African Americans and other minority groups, Latinos, rural, suburban, and urban.

"It's really healthy, positive stuff," Tuke adds, calling it "a rebirth and a redirection" for the party. "I was very pleased there was the absence of whining."

But it's not hard to find Democrats in the meetings who are rolling their eyes at the whole business. In a number of not-for-attribution conversations with the Scene, they expressed frustration with the state party's stodgy resistance to change. After watching Democrats from border to border get clubbed like whimpering seal pups, one said the party was in such bad shape that he hopes it dies.

For all the Big Tent talk, these Democrats point out derisively, there were only seven women and two blacks among the roughly 60 insiders at last week's meeting at the Hermitage Hotel ballroom.

"If you looked around the room at the representation, that in and of itself might tell you why the Democratic Party is in such dire straits," a Democrat present at last week's meeting says.

"The only way we're ever going to win in Tennessee, ever again, is if we have minority voters and women voters. This idea that we're just going out after all the white male rural voters is not a winning strategy. If this is where we're headed, we're in trouble. If you're going to energize your base, well, first of all you need to get your base in this room."

Another Democrat on the scene describes the meetings as "a lot of handwringing." Still another tells the Scene: "It was pathetic, completely and totally useless and a waste of time."

These Democrats say too many of the party's leaders are in a state of denial about November's elections, a catastrophic drubbing in which they lost the governor's office, three seats in Congress and 14 in the state House.

"It was just a Republican year," says Doug Horne, another former party chair, in an explanation that sounds like a Little Leaguer describing why the other team wanted it more. Yet his fatalism is a common refrain among the Tennessee Democrats who presided over November's iceberg-ramming. Shrugging their shoulders, they blame President Obama's unpopularity and those crazy, unpredictable political winds, and let it go at that.

"There's a lot of defensiveness," one disgusted Democrat says. "There were enough people there whose fingerprints are all over where we are, and they're still trying to defend themselves. They say this was all Obama. This is something we had no control over. That's bullshit.

"Of course, it's true to an extent. We could all go back to Harry Truman and say that's what started it. When he said he was for civil rights, that was the beginning of the end. But it's kind of hopeless to be saying that's what it's all about."

Tuke agrees the party needs to look within for culprits and stop blaming it all on bad juju. "Maybe it's the old Marine in me," says the Vietnam veteran, "but if I go out on an operation and I get hammered, I really want to know why. I don't want to say, 'Damn bad luck.' "

The party too often has neglected its progressive base to appeal to conservatives, he says. With some of his conservative positions on social issues, in fact, the party's gubernatorial nominee, Mike McWherter, seemed deliberately trying to deflate Democratic spirits.

"Let's just say that there were some races that were classic examples of ignoring the base," Tuke says. "Our constituencies have to believe that they're not only in the tent, they're at the table. We have to do a better job of inviting them to the table and then making sure there are seats for them."

Another Democrat who talked to the Scene had a more drastic solution to the troubles. For the party to resurrect, he says, it must die first. The party needs to shed some of its current leadership, this Democrat says — then it can come back as a stronger being.

"There are still too many hangers-on now," he says. "The party itself is beyond hope right now. It's hopeless. It's not quite dead, but it needs to die before it can come back to life."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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