Half Phil, Half Empty 

Will the real Phil Bredesen please stand up?

Will the real Phil Bredesen please stand up?

Former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen’s bid for governor is still young—the Democratic primary for next year’s race is fully 10 months off. But so far his campaign is like something out of an Ira and George Gershwin tune. You know the one:

“You like potato and I like po-tah-to/ You like tomato and I like to-mah-to/ Potato, po-tah-to, tomato, to-mah-to....”

In the short time since he announced he would run for the state’s top office, headlines about Bredesen’s candidacy have included a series of statements from the candidate followed by seemingly contradictory “clarifications” from his campaign. It’s clear that he’s being handled like a baby at a political barbecue. For Bredesen supporters, the discrepancies—dealing with his stance on personal campaign spending and the issue of new taxes—have been disheartening.

“I’m kind of perplexed by it,” says Will Cheek, the former Tennessee Democratic Party chairman and an open Bredesen supporter. “But I’m not close enough to know what’s going on.”

It all raises the question: Who’s in charge? The candidate or his handlers?

Bredesen is an interesting study in political evolution. When he became mayor of Nashville in 1991, he was a decided political infant. By the time he left office eight years later—after developing consensus for several high-profile and divisive projects—he no longer needed a strategist to advise him about his next move. Bredesen was his own man. And it was clear to all who knew him that the one person who could best state Phil Bredesen’s position on a given topic was Phil Bredesen. The same can’t be said for many candidates and elected officials.

His gubernatorial campaign staff, however, seems to have overlooked that. In recent weeks, the Bredesen campaign has sought to respin its candidate’s comments to mean different things. It has also made a point of keeping the candidate away from the baying hounds of the media.

Reporters have recently sought clarification on two things from Bredesen. First, there has been the issue of how much of his own money he would be willing to spend in the campaign. At a gathering of the state’s Democratic candidates for governor, the wealthy Bredesen announced he was going to curtail his spending; the campaign tried in newspaper reports afterward to open the door a bit.

Reporters have also wanted to know how Bredesen plans to fix the state’s budget mess. On this question, and in all fairness to Bredesen, the candidate may have gotten a raw deal from the media. Bredesen has never equivocated about an income tax. He has always opposed one. But an errant headline writer at The Knoxville News Sentinel set off a flurry of damage control inside the Bredesen campaign in early October, after a story headline suggested he was open to an income tax. In fact, Bredesen had made a subtle change in position by arguing that in a post-Sept. 11 era of anemic consumer spending, he might not be able to “manage” the state out of its financial morass as he had hoped. Instead, he stated that some new revenues other than a levy on income might be worth considering.

The distinction is not difficult to grasp, but it’s the kind that journalists can screw up and campaigns have to be diligent about controlling. Once again, stories appeared in newspapers, with comments from the campaign, that suggested competing messages.

Former state legislator Tommy Burnett says that even though the shift in Bredesen’s message on the tax front may have been innocuous, it was still confusing. “So then he backs away from ‘I can fix it,’ which is fine, but to voters he still has to get across that he’s staying away from the income tax. On top of that, he says he wants to look at other revenues, just not those having to do with income. It’s a lot to get across.”

Former Tennessee Congressman Jim Cooper, whose political career came to a halt in 1994 when he lost a bid for the U.S. Senate, points out that it’s difficult for candidates to engage in honest public dialogue when they’re constantly being hounded by a press corps that doesn’t reward any deviation from a message.

“The profession is creating the candidates it abhors,” he says. “You have to be so relentlessly on message that you can’t even rephrase something, lest it be misunderstood.” As well, he says, third-paragraph nuances are often lost on busy readers, which works against the candidate. “Even your mother won’t read to the end of an article.”

The seeming double-talk from the campaign is—let’s face it—something that many voters may really not care about. What Bredesen may be getting more static from is his rejection of an income tax. And that’s coming from his base.

Erik Cole, executive director of the consumer watchdog and Democratically aligned organization Tennessee Citizen Action, says he’s astonished that the one fix to the state budget situation that’s still on the table—an income tax—is the one that Bredesen and other candidates have snubbed like a cash-poor lobbyist at a steak house.

“I think that at this point, looking at a state budget that will be about $1 billion in the hole by the time the next governor is elected, it’s a bit irresponsible to rule out the income tax completely,” Cole says.

For his part, though, Cheek makes some allowance—however cynical—for Bredesen’s rhetoric on the topic, even though it has raised the dander of other Democrats. “I think people who are smart enough to realize that what he’s saying is not really logical are also smart enough to realize that’s what you have to say to get elected. I think that truth will clearly minimize the damage on that front.”

Others are more idealistic—and less interested in political reality. “You hear some Democrats who are concerned about the message,” one Bredesen supporter says. “A lot of left-leaning Democrats who are convinced we need an income tax are not real thrilled that he’s come out against one.”

But, then again, the supporter says, “Where else are they going to go?”

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