Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Haslam as the Undecider

Posted By on Tue, Dec 11, 2012 at 4:54 AM

On Monday, when Gov. Haslam announced that Tennessee would let the federal government oversee our health insurance exchange, he put out a statement that read in part:

This decision comes after months of consideration and analysis. It is a business decision based on what is best for Tennesseans with the information we have now that we've pressed hard to receive from Washington. If this were a political decision, it would've been easy, and I would've made it a long time ago.

"Months of consideration and analysis" could serve as the motto of Haslam's gubernatorial career. There is not anything, seemingly, he won't consider and analyze and then do whatever the most conservative members of the Republican party want him to do. I mean, really, people, was there ever any question about what he was going to do?

It's cute that he still goes through the trouble of pretending that his consideration and analysis ever takes him anywhere other than exactly where state legislators want him, but it's theater, and everyone knows it.

Last week, Chris Carroll from The Times Free Press tweeted, "Didn't sneak it into story, but McCormick told me Haslam would pay a big political price if he forces state-run. Social lege could rule day." So the state legislature had him by the short hairs. If he didn't do what they wanted, they'd spend the next five months embarrassing the crap out him nationally and forcing him to have to consider vetoing legislation. (Haslam really doesn't want to veto legislation, because if he seems weak now, imagine how he'll seem when he's repeatedly overridden.)

Haslam can claim it wasn't a political decision, but with legislators running around beforehand bragging about how they had him boxed in, it sure looks like a political decision. As state House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh put it, Haslam is enormously popular with Tennesseans, but it doesn't translate to any political power: "I would hate to know that I had a 70 percent approval rating statewide, and couldn't get my own party to support my initiatives."

It appears that legislative leadership is starting to realize that Haslam's reputation for being overly cautious and unable to exert any power on his party (a narrative put forth by legislators themselves, mind you) is becoming problematic. After all, Haslam is popular with Tennesseans due to two things: First, there was no better candidate in the race on either side, and second, a lot of people believed he would be a check to the worst impulses and excesses of the legislature. If he can't actually pull No. 2 off (or at least appear to be doing so), he's shooting himself in the foot for reelection.

So, look at how legislators are talking about him now.

Glen Casada: "With this decision, Governor Haslam proved — once again — he is continuously looking out for the best interests of Tennesseans. I applaud the governor for taking a deliberate approach and gathering all available facts and perspectives about this complex issue." (See how Casada talks about Haslam like he's repeatedly adding to his track record of making good decisions about Tennessee. He's not unable to make a decision — he's "deliberate.")

Ron Ramsey: "I applaud Gov. Haslam's refusal to partner with the federal government on health insurance exchanges." (I guess Ramsey is just ignoring the part where Haslam said, "If conditions warrant in the future and it makes sense at a later date for Tennessee to run the exchange, we would consider that as an option at the appropriate time," which doesn't sound like such a dramatic or strong rejection as Ramsey makes it out to be.)

Bill Ketron: "As a businessman, I would not enter into any agreement without knowing all of the requirements. The governor’s letter to Secretary Sebelius reiterates this, citing the more than 800 pages of draft rules that have been issued since the November election. He also talks about the significant risks involved with taking on an exchange while they are still devising the rules and the fact that states have still not received appropriate information. I absolutely believe Gov. Haslam made the right decision." (See, Ketron, like Haslam, is a businessman, and they make decisions, not just wait around for their hands to be forced by fate, even if it looked like Haslam was waiting around for his hand to be forced by fate.)

But my favorite is Phil Roe's statement, because this is a guy with a foot in both state and national politics, and he's got to be very aware of how Haslam comes across, not just here, but in D.C. too.

Gov. Haslam’s decision further underscores the challenges not just for Tennessee, but nationwide, that will stem from the president’s health care law. I trust the governor’s leadership, and I look forward to working with him to improve the health of Tennesseans.

Because of our failed experiment with TennCare, Tennessee is no stranger to the unique challenges that come with health care reform. I hope this decision will send a strong signal to President Obama to work with leaders like Gov. Haslam to develop responsible, market-based solutions to lower cost, increase access and improve quality of health care.

The statement is only two paragraphs long and he's got "decision" and "leader" in both of them.

It's clear that this is supposed to be the takeaway message. Haslam didn't procrastinate and wait until the last minute because he couldn't figure out how to do what he knew was right without making his life difficult once the legislative session gets started. (Never mind his comment, "I've said that I think Tennessee could run a state exchange cheaper and better, and my natural inclination is to keep the federal government out of our business as much as possible.") He made a decision as a leader.

Here's the problem: As any business person knows, a leader isn't always beloved. Someone who is truly leading and truly making tough decisions is going to ruffle feathers from time to time. Haslam doesn't ruffle the feathers of the state legislature. So we all know he's not really leading.

The people who are really in charge can rush out every time he behaves as they've instructed him to and claim that's evidence of his decisive leadership, but I'm not sure anyone's buying it.

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