To all the national media touting Phil Bredesen as Barack Obama's running mate, we ask one question:
Seriously?We thought it was a joke at first. Is America really ready for the Geek Veep? Then The Politico, Washington Post, and Fox News all put Bredesen on their lists, and the blogosphere wouldn't shut up about him. Maybe it could actually happen.
Lately, Bredesen's stock has fallen in the media, while Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden are the hot possibilities. But who really knows what Obama's thinking? All we know is that he's hinting he'll pick a Beltway outsider, someone not identified with Washington. Bredesen fits that description as well as anyone. Anything's possible. Bush picked Cheney, didn't he?
So with Democrats gathering this month in Denver for their national convention, the Scene offers its own critique of Bredesen in the public interest and in the hopes of saving Obama from his biggest mistake since he joined Jeremiah Wright's church. (Barack, no need to thank us now. We can do fist-bumps later, OK?)
Style over substance, as they say, so let's begin with this. The No. 1 reason Obama shouldn't pick Bredesen: He's a black hole of charisma.
Educated as a physicist at Harvard, where you just know he wore a pocket protector, he speaks in a nasal monotone about "optimum solutions" and "polyglot systems." He reads Chemical Week. If he's really letting his hair down, he might shift into "confession mode" and tell you some deep secret about himself, like how fond he is of processing data before making decisions. Right brain/left brain theory doesn't seem to apply.
"I believe in data," he says.
He frequently repeats words weirdly like an android with a glitch in its interface with humans. This quirk is more pronounced when Bredesen is uncomfortable—say when he's asked about TennCare, the health insurance program for the poor and chronically sick that he famously dismantled.
Of what remains of TennCare, he says, "It's gotten into a much healthier place, not as healthy as it could have been, but it's a better, it's a better, it's a better place."
Our geeky governor would never outshine Obama on the campaign trail. No worries there.
The really crazy thing is that Bredesen ever won an election at all. It probably had something to do with the roughly $10 million of his own money he's poured into his campaigns. I knew there was something strange about him the first time he ran for governor in 1994. Jetting to Knoxville on his plane, I asked him about criticism just thrown his way by one of his more irascible rivals in that race. The substance of this rebuke of Bredesen escapes me after all these years, but the candidate's response was more memorable.
"That's sheer sophistry," Bredesen snorted. To understand Bredesen, a reporter needed a dictionary. I looked it up. "That's bullshit" is what I think he was trying to say.
On his first trip to the state's hinterlands, he went to a traditional political event in West Tennessee—a raccoon supper in a sweaty VFW hall filled with good ol' boys. Standing awkwardly near the door in his suit and tie, he gawked at the greasy meat on the paper plate somebody handed him. To keep up appearances, an aide had to make him eat it.
Around this time, Bredesen, who made his considerable personal fortune as a health-care CEO, assured me he wasn't running to be a Michael Dukakis-style technocrat. But he couldn't tell me exactly what he did want to do as governor. That would come later, he promised. He never really got around to saying.
Which brings us to the No. 2 reason Obama shouldn't pick Bredesen: He's not really a Democrat.
Look at how he's governed. Notably, there's that blood splattering his Italian loafers from the TennCare massacre. After campaigning as the candidate with the business acumen to save the program, he killed it.
More than 200,000 people—most of them categorized as uninsurable in the private sector because of pre-existing conditions or chronic illnesses—were tossed off the rolls. That's not a very Democratic thing to do.
Bredesen, typically thinking of the problem as strictly a budgetary issue, insists that killing TennCare was necessary to control spiraling costs.
"It was too hard to turn around the Titanic so they just threw everybody overboard without life jackets," says one former administration official who was perturbed by the decision.
As it turned out, according to critics, savings fell not so much to the state but to the federal government, which immediately stopped giving Tennessee $800 million in 2-to-1 matching money. The actual spending of state dollars, on the other hand, went up $60 million in the first year, according to a comptroller's report. The administration blamed the increase on health-care provider rate increases.
Given Obama's support for universal health insurance, what Bredesen did to TennCare is probably enough to strike his name from the veepstakes. But there's more. On issue after issue, from the death penalty to Darfur, Bredesen has either reacted like a Republican or sat on his hands. Some members of Bredesen's own party—and even a few of his former aides—are grumbling about the governor (privately, of course) and wondering what's the point of working hard to elect a Democrat if he won't act like one when he takes office. The past year alone has provided more than a few examples. Let's review:
• Bredesen let Paul House languish on death row even after exculpatory DNA evidence convinced the U.S. Supreme Court that no reasonable juror would ever vote to convict him again. The governor ignored a letter from nearly three dozen state lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, urging him to pardon House, who has advanced multiple sclerosis and can't walk or feed himself. Asked to explain his failure to act, Bredesen said, "Yes, he is ill, but he's not terminally, [dying] tomorrow ill.... I don't think it's appropriate for the governor to interject himself in this process." A judge later ordered House released, but prosecutors insist on trying him again.
• According to the governor, it's more important to "professionally maximize" the state's return on investment than to take a moral stand against genocide in Darfur. He told The Tennessean it's OK with him if state pension money is invested in Sudan. "I think you get into very tricky waters" if you tell fund managers "here's a political consideration you have to take into account," the governor said.
• Bredesen did nothing to help legislation to stop National Coal Corp. from blowing off the tops of Tennessee's mountains. That was all the more baffling because the legislature, at the urging of Bredesen, has invested more than $100 million to acquire and protect the land that's now in the coal company's crosshairs. The state bought surface and timber rights, but mineral rights belong to National Coal. Bredesen admitted he was only vaguely aware of the bill, even though proponents had given hours of alarming presentations about mountaintop removal mining to House and Senate committees. A House subcommittee killed the bill.
• The governor refused to follow other states in reporting the names of the dangerously mentally ill to the FBI's national instant background check system for gun purchases. That's even after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech, where the young killer could buy guns even though he had been found mentally unsound. To prevent more tragedies, Virginia Gov. Kaine quickly ordered his state to report the names. But Bredesen did nothing, saying it might cost too much to "aggregate that data."
Even when it comes to purely partisan politics, Bredesen can't make himself follow the party playbook. He blithely informed reporters that he actually discouraged Mike McWherter from challenging GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander this year. McWherter was the party's best hope against Alexander, and his withdrawal left the Democrats with a cast of no-name dweebs in this week's primary. Bredesen won't even say that he'll vote for the Democratic nominee against Alexander. "How I vote is my private business," he says.
The governor also has repeatedly pooh-poohed Obama's chances of winning Tennessee in November. To the Philadelphia Inquirer before Obama secured the nomination, he recounted this story: "Four guys in a booth said, 'Phil, sit down, we voted for you,' and so I did. And one of them turns to me and says, 'We're all Democrats, who are you going to vote for? Hillary or Hussein?' "
Bredesen has been bad-mouthing Obama—there's the No. 3 reason Obama shouldn't pick him. (Come to think of it, that might be No. 1.)
Democrats are supposed to believe in the power of government as a force for good in the world. Like a Republican, Bredesen seems to see government as a hindrance, the less the better.
After his 2006 reelection against token Republican opposition in the person of state Sen. Jim Bryson, some Democrats anticipated big new initiatives. Like many observers, they thought Bredesen had been playing like a conservative only to trick voters. Now that he was safely reelected, they thought he would reveal his true self. The joke was on them.
"Don't expect in my inauguration speech for me to roll out something that people say, 'Oh wow,' " he casually told reporters at the time, explaining that he planned instead "to try to solve problems when they come along."
One veteran correspondent was so taken aback that he asked the governor, "So you're going to coast?"
"You'd like to see somebody who maybe had a little more of a vision," one state Democratic Party executive committee member admits. "But on the other hand, the bar is set so low Bredesen doesn't have to have any vision. You just have to be thrilled that he's not Don Sundquist," referring to Bredesen's Republican predecessor whose name is now synonymous with ineptitude.
"It's frustrating," another party executive committee member says. "Here's a strong guy with a well-funded political organization. This is his time, his governorship. You'd think the guy would take a little risk, but he won't."
Consider Bredesen's major accomplishments. Stay with me here. This won't take long.
True, the governor's flying high this summer after enticing Volkswagen to Chattanooga with an incentive package that could top $500 million. It's possibly the most government assistance and tax breaks ever for an American auto plant. Most experts predict it'll eventually pay off for Tennessee's economy, and it was a major victory for a governor. But overall, his legacy is looking a little thin. For a can-do guy, Bredesen hasn't tried to do much.
Administration officials dispute that last point, of course. But, asked to detail what Bredesen has achieved, they are forced to focus on his supposed skills as a budget cutter, cost controller and manager of money, not so much on solid improvements in government services or public policies.
"From a management perspective, he's done a lot," says Dave Cooley, Bredesen's first deputy governor, in a typical statement. It's as if everyone's talking about a state finance commissioner, not the governor.
Like every Tennessee governor in modern times, he faithfully has added money to public schools—more than $1 billion so far. He also has started a modest pre-kindergarten program with classes for at-risk children around the state. He gets credit for changing the education funding formula to give urban districts more money, even if lawmakers had to force him to do it. He raised the cigarette tax and banned smoking in restaurants.
What else? It says something when his aides name as one of his major achievements a relatively small research initiative—$70 million in state funding to figure out how to turn corncobs and switchgrass into ethanol. As a slogan for this governor, "Yes we can" wouldn't resonate.
"He's a total Republican," says the former administration official who asks not to be named. "He's bored with the job now. He didn't promise anything in particular, and he has delivered on the few things that he said he'd do. This governor's above it all. He just says, 'Oh well, I really can't be bothered.' "
Cutting business deals—even one-sided ones like Volkswagen's in which the state essentially wrote a blank check—is the only thing that excites Bredesen at this point, according to this source.
"He's an extremely intelligent man. But once he's made the deal, once he's closed it, he needs the next, new thing. He's a brilliant guy with attention deficit disorder, maybe."
From the beginning of his governorship, the ex-aide says, "It was amazing how cautious Bredesen was. He was bulletproof in the polls and fresh and new, and there would be things put forward for the legislative agenda that would have moved things in a more progressive direction. But he would say, 'Oh no, we're not going to do that.' "
Other aides to Bredesen tell a story that illustrates the governor's play-it-safe mentality. During his first term, the legislature outraged liberals by voting to offer specialty state license tags bearing the anti-abortion message "Choose Life." In a meeting at the governor's office, various underlings made impassioned pleas to Bredesen to veto the bill. The governor, who is supposedly pro-choice, eventually turned to Cooley and asked what he thought.
"I'll tell you what I think," Cooley replied, his face screwed up in a red scowl. "I think it's just a fuckin' license plate."
And that was that. Bredesen promptly ended the meeting and let the bill become law.
Cooley argues the story shows the governor's pragmatism, that he was wisely unwilling to expend political capital fighting to kill a small thing like a special license plate—no matter how offensive it might have been to some in his administration or his political party.
"You're right, he's not carried the Democratic flag on a lot of things," Cooley says. "But he is definitely somebody who sets two or three very clear priorities and doesn't let any of the other sort of noise take him off his targets. Hell, I think that's a huge component of his success."
Focus is what the governor's friends call it. But others see Bredesen as blasé, at times almost cavalier about governing. More and more, he doesn't seem to be paying attention. Or he just doesn't care.
When he realized this spring he might have to cut state jobs to shore up the budget, he called it "tossing some baggage overboard." Even the state Republican Party thought that was callous and wrote a press release castigating Bredesen.
Most politicians would lament the economic downturn that has led Tennessee to cut its state payroll and stymied even the meager set of improvements in state services that Bredesen has promoted. This year, for instance, he had to abandon his planned pre-kindergarten expansion. Bredesen, though, seems to find pleasure in the budget challenge.
"You're going to have good years and tight years, and I actually think that's very healthy," he said at the beginning of the year. "That's the time you kind of clean up fluff and rethink what your priorities are and you just run things a little better like that."
Even a right-wing nutjob like Arkansas' Mike Huckabee, who thinks the earth is 6,000 years old, may have compiled a more progressive record as governor than Bredesen's. Huckabee expanded health coverage in his state, for instance, and subsidized college educations for the children of illegal immigrants. To pay for social programs, he actually raised taxes. Bredesen has shown no willingness to do that, even as the state's sales tax base erodes and deep budget cuts are necessary.
The whole of Bredesen's tenure—his focus on budgetary minutiae at the expense of social needs, his tunnel-vision view of government as a bottom-line business—it all raises questions about the CEO governor template that has attracted so much favorable national media attention of late.
In states like Virginia, Massachusetts and Montana, business chieftains have been elected governor and won credit for bridging partisan divides to get things done. But what happens when your CEO governor isn't interested in getting much done?
Gordon Bonnyman, the advocate for TennCare patients who became Bredesen's nemesis, says the governor's mistake is seeing state government strictly in business terms.
"The CEO has to balance his books and that's all," Bonnyman says. "He's generating a net bottom line. That produces a mind set that says, 'The rest of it ain't my job.' The difficulty with bringing that to state government is that state government is not a company. It's ultimately responsible for providing services to the populace and, at some fundamental level, its mission is to assure the commonweal, the common well-being."
Bredesen is defensive about TennCare, no doubt fearing he'll be remembered as the governor who threw 200,000 sick people to the wolves to make it easier to manage the budget. Unprovoked, he will rant about Bonnyman, casting the advocate and his do-gooder outfit, the Tennessee Justice Center, as unreasonable obstructionists.
Largely, however, Bredesen seems not to care whether he's regarded as an underachiever. OK, we admit it's a stretch, but in this respect, the straightlaced, overeducated Bredesen seems a little like the dope-smoking slacker in the Coen brothers' cult classic The Big Lebowski. Like the Dude, Bredesen abides.
Reporters, still coming to grips with the fact that they're covering a governor who may be out to lunch, continue to pester him about his legacy. So in interviews with the state's major newspapers, Bredesen has developed a spiel on this topic. He begins by mentioning portraits of all the state's governors in the Capitol lobby. Finally, you think the first time you hear this, Bredesen is about to reveal his dream to make history as one of the greats of Tennessee politics. But that's not exactly his point.
"I go out there and see those portraits in the hall and I recognize the first four or five down the line and, beyond that, they're just faces on the wall," Bredesen says. "And you just become aware of the fact that, you know, in my son's lifetime, I'm going to be just another face on the wall, and the tour guide is going to have to tell people who that old guy was."
And there you have it, straight from the governor himself, yet another reason Obama shouldn't pick Bredesen as his running mate. He's completely forgettable.
God bless you all.
@Moi: Yes I am, but point me to the source of your information.
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