Thursday, January 6, 2011

Emptying the Notebook: Phil Bredesen on TennCare, Bill Haslam and Tennessee Democrats

Posted By on Thu, Jan 6, 2011 at 3:14 PM

Photo by Michael Shane Neal
  • Photo by Michael Shane Neal

About a week before Christmas, I sat down with outgoing Gov. Phil Bredesen for what became a pretty wide-ranging interview. He was in the thick of his legacy tour with local media outlets, most of which — he suggested to me — had offered questions utterly similar to the last. Frankly, I didn't expect much to come of it, especially when he began our interview by pointing out the irony/humor/incongruity of the Scene following Fox News on his Thursday schedule (but, of course, it was the local Fox affiliate, the guv's press secretary quickly offered).

We ended up going on for more than an hour. As with any interview, what eventually ran in the dead-tree version of the Scene (and on the web right here, as part of this package re: Bredesen's legacy), was a condensed and edited version of what really happened. The interview was actually about three times longer than what ran. So here are some outtakes that didn't make the final version, in which the outgoing governor shares his views on party politics, his successor, and solutions to the health-care boondoggle.

Let's start with his thoughts on the Tennessee Democratic Party:

I heard you say the other day, if they could describe it in 25 words, that’d be a good start. Can you?

I certainly can’t describe the Democratic Party today in 25 words. Here’s the point — I guess you were over at that lunch—

I mean describe the principles and values that inform your decision-making —

The point I was trying to make here was to say — and I almost wish you could say this to somebody in the White House — it’s not about triangulating all these individual issues. It’s about creating some sort of a worldview so people could say, "Yeah, I could see our country like that. I’d like to live in a country like that." And here’s the things that fall out of that as things you should do. I think that’s what the Republicans did well in the ’90s. I think they’ve gotten a long way off of that now. I’m not even sure I can say that about the two parties right now, with what’s going on in the Congress right now, anybody that talks about reducing the deficit up there, I’m just going to laugh at them.

The idea of, perhaps what a Bloomberg or other independent could do is to paint that picture of the world where you could say, in 25 words, here’s a worldview that I want to promote, and start bringing people together from different parts of the political spectrum.

It’s interesting that that’s kind of a counterintuitive idea at this point.

What is?

What you just said. In our politics as it is now, people aren’t talking about how they see the world being. This is what you were talking about being mayor of Nashville — ‘I see Nashville in eight years being this, in 20 years being this.’ Is it kind of odd that it’s gotten this way?

Politics has gotten extremely tactical rather than strategic. I think there’s a lot of things that drive it. Certainly from the perspective of your occupation, this ever-shortened, ever-more-voracious news cycle just rewards that very tactical kind of stuff. Nobody wants to have strategic interviews, I promise you. But they do want to know what you said about somebody or other yesterday.

It’s almost a weird shorthand.

It’s all being played out in that little kind of, that very sort of tactical approach. But I read the last election, when President Obama was elected, as people saying, "I really am looking for this thing to be pulled together, and some sort of view of what is America in 2008?" I’ve been somewhat disappointed in what’s happened, and I think it has been just an immediate engagement by the White House on this very tactical level and given up the opportunity to start painting that larger picture.

Anybody who’s in politics, and certainly myself, there’s a lot of tactical stuff that you do. I mean, I want to change education but the process of doing that has all sorts of, and here’s this state representative who needs to be convinced of this or that and the other today. But at least you start out with a notion of, here’s the vision. Just like, here’s the role of the Army, and that’s ultimately got to translate down into, and where does this platoon go tomorrow. But you start out with a vision of what you’re trying to do as opposed to it all being about what’s happening to this platoon.

On Gov.-elect Bill Haslam:
Are you confident about Haslam’s interest in this as a priority?

Certainly, at the time we were applying for the Race to the Top funds, when I wanted to get all the governor candidates signed onto that letter and we did, I talked to him about it, and he was very supportive of it. Again, the fact that major leaders in his party had been part of the design of it helps a lot in that. And everything I’ve seen so far is he certainly seems to be emphasizing it and interested in it and interested in carrying forward, and just like with anybody, the rubs will come in the future where there’s different things to be funded or different decisions to be made, and he’s still got to decide where he is on those times. But I’ve seen nothing so far that leads me to believe he does not have it very high on his priority list, and that the basic approach of high standards, making measurements, using them to manage the system — I think he’s bought into that.

Can you talk about some of the advice you’ve given Bill Haslam?

He and I have talked a number of times since he was elected — in fact, the first two days after he was elected I spent half the day with him each day. We’ve talked about — and I certainly don’t want to be sitting here pontificating about how you be governor or something like that, I’ve more invited questions — he’s asked me a lot. I’d say he’s asked a lot of questions about things, and I’ve tried to respond. Some of the stuff he’s taken and gone with, and others he said he’d do it some other way.

Where he’s very involved right now is in making personnel decisions. And we’ve had a lot of conversations about what kind of a person will work best in this commissioner’s slot or what’s the reailty of what the deputy gobernor does as compared to what the chief financial officer does, those kinds of things.

Certainly, in terms of advice, I told him on choosing people that that’s worth a lot of time and attention, because state government is such a big and sprawling thing, most of these people are going to be out there working away without you having any idea of what they’re doing day to day, so you really need people …

I will say, in the case of Bill Haslam, he came to see me before he ran for mayor of Knoxville, we had a long lunch together. And then he came to talk to me a couple of times when he was thinking about running for governor — I talked to a number of people who were doing that — and one thing I was always very impressed with with him was, his questions were about the job and how to do it, not about politics or how do I get elected or these kinds of things. I always thought that was a healthy way, he really was thinking about how to do the job.

On TennCare:
What’s your pie-in-the-sky fix for TennCare?

Oh, some sort of national health program. I really don’t think that the health care problem is solvable at the state level. If you do a really broad, attractive system, you do what TennCare did, if you lived in a surrounding state and had a serious medical problem, you were out of your mind not to move to Tennessee. It’s got to be something which is more universal in its form. We didn’t have the ability, either legally or the size of the business, to really negotiate with drug companies and all those kinds of things. But I think it’s got to be done. It’s got to be done nationally.

I very much would like to get out of the business of, there’s a health care program for the poor, there’s a health care program for the others, and Medicaid.

On his legacy:
What do you think your legacy will be here? This is the end of obviously two terms as governor, but also 16 years of public service in which you’ve had a huge effect.

I hope that people will see the legacy as starting to change and move the expectations people have of what can be accomplished in this state, what their kids can do if they’re in some of these rural areas, and just this sense of higher expectations.

I grew up in a very small town. I would say when I went off to college, I had certainly never met anybody famous, I had never met anybody in elected office higher than the mayor of the 1,100-population Shortsville [N.Y.], which is an unpaid part-time job. There were a lot of things that Harvard did for me, but the largest one was probably having a chance to meet some people who really were making a difference and figuring out that they weren’t any different from me. They were not somebody who you’ve looking at through a long spyglass and thinking I could never aspire to — I see the same thing goes on in some of these inner-city areas here, the biggest problem some of these kids have is they just can’t see themselves, just what’s going on across the river is just so far from their experience.

I always tell people one of the most important things you can do is just give them some experience. I love going out and talking to kids, I’ve done a lot of that. And you hope that one of the things that’s happening is you sit there and look at somebody, he’s the governor of the state and all this stuff, and really he’s not any smarter than I am, he’s not any better looking than I am — he’s probably worse-looking. But you just sort of see somebody, you see them as a human being, and you think this is within the scope of what I can do.

In a way it’s that same thing playing out in politics. You just want to say to people, “You know, you’ve got all the pieces here in Tennessee to do whatever you want in this country." You don’t need to be second to anybody if you just start thinking of yourselves — whether it be through Race to the Top in education or what we can do in conservation or the kinds of businesses we can get here — that’s what I really hope to have begun to change.

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