Skip to comments.BREDESEN IN 2008? Southern Man
Posted on 01/27/2005 2:28:07 PM PST by Sonny M
Trap-shooting rarely qualifies a candidate for public office, but, in 2002, it helped decide the Tennessee governor's race. Sometime that summer, a range owner in eastern Tennessee got wind that both candidates--former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, and Representative Van Hilleary, a Republican--were avid hunters. As a way to bring his range a little publicity, he challenged the candidates to what he called the Great Tennessee Trap Shoot, to be held over the Labor Day weekend. A souped-up version of skeet, trap involves shotgunning clay pigeons from a variety of positions as they hurtle through the air. In other words, the shootout wouldn't be your typical election season meet-and-greet. In fact, it is hard to imagine why a candidate would actually agree to such a contest--who wants to be publicly bested by his opponent over something as tricky, and as trifling, as trap-shooting? But Bredesen agreed immediately; after all, he told me recently, "I was a reasonably good hunting wing [bird] shot, and that was something you couldn't learn in a day. And so it would help me with the NRA." On the morning of the event, however, Hilleary was nowhere to be found. His campaign insisted he had already committed to a fund-raising picnic, but the event in question didn't take place until the afternoon, leaving Hilleary enough time to do both. Bredesen showed up anyway, soaking in the free publicity and getting in a good round of trap--while his surrogates had a free-for-all with the Republican's misstep. "Van talks a big game about being a sportsman," Bredesen's campaign adviser, Dave Cooley, told the Memphis Commercial Appeal. "But ducking out of this event proves he's more comfortable taking political shots at Phil from his Washington, D.C., office."
There are other reasons why Bredesen wound up winning the race. He had been a popular two-term mayor; the outgoing governor, Don Sundquist, was an unpopular Republican; and Hilleary ran a poor campaign. But, in the end, Bredesen won for many of the reasons crystallized by the Great Tennessee Trap Shoot: his unabashed self-confidence; his down-home, red-meat appeal; and his ability to morph from easygoing outdoorsman to skilled politician when the opportunity arises. These qualities--as well as his aggressive efforts to cut the state's deficit and rein in TennCare, its fiscally draining Medicaid supplement--also explain why, since taking office, he has achieved stratospheric approval ratings. According to pollsters at Middle Tennessee State University, his ratings have hovered between 63 and 72 percent--among both Republicans and Democrats. "People just like him because of his style," says Pete Sain, a friend of Bredesen who owns a construction company in Manchester, Tennessee. "I've got some close, die-hard Republican friends, and they feel like his approach is needed." He is, by some accounts, the most popular governor in state history.
Clearly, Bredesen has figured out something about Southern politics that many national Democrats have missed, which is why a growing number of them are looking to his career as a model for how to win in the region. And, at first glance, he does appear to be the perfect test case for those on the left trying to "figure out" the South. Not only is he liberal, he is not even Southern--he was raised in New York and educated at Harvard. The problem, however, is that, while Bredesen has proved himself an able politician with a bright future, his success will be hard for others to replicate. Not only is Tennessee a political anomaly--a moderate state in an often immoderate region--but, over the last decade, the entire South, Tennessee included, has been falling further into partisan extremism and cultural conservatism. Largely by appealing to Christian conservatives, Republicans have won the last ten open-seat Senate races in the region, and they hold a 40-seat lead over Democrats in the House's Southern delegation. A recent analysis of Southern voting patterns by the Los Angeles Times concluded that, "under Bush, the GOP is solidifying its hold not just on Southern white conservatives but white moderates as well," with more people willing to vote straight-ticket. Democrats used to refer to their hold on the region as the "Solid South," and "Republican" used to be a grave insult. These days, you scorn your enemies with "Democrat."
But Bredesen, thanks to a unique blend of personality and political skill, has defied such attacks, and, in so doing, has positioned himself as a potential White House candidate in 2008. Earlier this month, he gave the keynote address at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) regional caucus, and he has quietly begun laying the groundwork for a possible presidential bid. Given his background, Bredesen is the last person you would expect to find shooting trap on an East Tennessee farm or leading an increasingly red state. And yet there he is. Now some Democrats are beginning to think Bredesen is exactly the sort of person they want to see leading the party in 2008.
Nashville has changed a lot since Bredesen first ran for office there in 1987. Today, it is a bustling New South metropolis, having added some 250,000 people, an NFL team, and a 3,000-employee Dell plant over the last decade. A new symphony hall is going up just south of Broadway, a few blocks from the soon-to-be-built baseball stadium and in a neighborhood that, 20 years ago, was a seedy district of empty warehouses and strip bars. Part of Nashville's problem back then was a clique of hidebound conservative and urban Democrats who were heavily invested--politically and financially--in keeping the city a sleepy backwater. Many of those politicians came out for the 1987 mayoral race, and so did a former health care executive and political novice named Phil Bredesen. "Nashville in 1987, although it was beginning to change, hadn't yet," says Tam Gordon, a former political reporter who now works in Bredesen's office. "And suddenly, there's this name. He had a lot of nerve."
Those who knew Bredesen respected him for his business acumen. After graduating with a physics degree, he spent several years as a computer programmer in Boston before moving to Nashville in 1975. In 1980 he launched a health care management outfit from a computer in his den; when he sold it six years later, it was a $700-million-a-year, New York Stock Exchange-listed operation. But Bredesen's wealth and Northern roots proved a liability in what was still a quiet Southern town, and his opponents effectively labeled him a carpetbagger. The attacks caught Bredesen off guard, in large part because his advisers were mostly businessmen, not politicos. "That campaign had almost nobody who had any political experience," says Byron Trauger, a longtime Bredesen adviser. Bredesen tried to ignore the taunts, pushing the focus back toward issues like a proposal to allow pari-mutuel betting in the state. "He was wide-eyed and somewhat awkward," Gordon says. "He was very focused on what he wanted to say and what he wanted to do and what he thought"--a fact Bredesen himself readily concedes. "I would go into things like giving a speech back in 1987, and I would think through the issues really carefully, but what I didn't understand was, that's not the basis on which people select you."
Needless to say, Bredesen is not a natural politician. He lacks the offhand charm of John Edwards and the back-slapping verve of Bill Richardson. His stocky build and sandy blond hair betray his Scandinavian heritage, as does his reticence when it comes to self-promotion--a decidedly negative quality in Southern politics. "I'm a very quiet guy," he says from behind his massive desk in the governor's office. "I grew up in a family in which the strong, silent type was upheld." Trauger recalls walking with Bredesen in downtown Nashville just after that first mayoral race. "Several people, as we walked along, spoke to him, and he turned to me and said, 'I'm surprised that people want to talk to me.' And I said, 'Phil, we just spent a million trying to get them to want to come talk to you!'" Despite his bashful wonkiness, Bredesen still did well enough to make it to the run-off, though he was soundly defeated by U.S. Representative Bill Boner a few weeks later.
Early the next year, Bredesen ran for Boner's empty congressional seat, but was again beaten. At that point, a lot of people would have given up on politics. But not Bredesen--for him, it was merely a problem to solve. "One of the keys to Phil as a person, as well as a political figure, is that he is eager to learn," notes Trauger. Five years ago, Bedesen learned to paint, and, in 2004, he designed the state Christmas card. When he wanted a canoe, he learned to build one--from scratch. That massive desk in his office? He designed it himself. It's this sort of drive that, in the late '80s, kept Bredesen in the city's limelight. "He consciously learned the city more than he had," Trauger says. As a member of the symphony board, he helped solve a musician labor dispute; he founded a nonprofit that collected surplus food for needy Nashvillians; and, all the while, he was touring small businesses and talking to civic groups. One speech, Trauger recalls, began with a whole line of thank yous: "'Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you,' in big, bold type so he would remember that he needed to be thanking people." Bredesen learned quickly, and, in 1991, he swept the mayor's race with 70 percent. (It helped that Boner's mayoralty was plagued by scandal, including his engagement, while still married, to a lounge singer named Traci Peel.)
If Bredesen was the right man for the job, he was also in the right place at the right time. Historically, Tennessee has been a political anomaly, home to both the South's oldest Republican base and a stable, moderate liberalism. From 1900 to 1950, Republicans won only 80 of 2,565 House races across the entire South; 50 of those came from two East Tennessee districts. These Republicans infused state politics with a bipartisanship unseen in its neighbors, and, after Barry Goldwater made voting Republican more acceptable in the South, provided its first GOP senators and governors. As a result, Tennessee's modern Republican leadership--such as Senator Howard Baker and Governor (now Senator) Lamar Alexander--has been much more moderate than that of surrounding states. Baker, for example, broke ranks to support Jimmy Carter's Panama Canal treaty and was one of the few Republicans who sought votes among African Americans. Tennessee liberals flourished as well: Cordell Hull, born in a small Middle Tennessee town, went on to be a Roosevelt brain-truster, and, for his role in creating the United Nations, a Nobel Peace Prize-winner, while Senator Estes Kefauver ran for the White House with Adlai Stevenson. Kefauver, alongside his fellow Democratic Senator Al Gore Sr., was one of the few Southern legislators to reject the Southern Manifesto, a document opposing the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision.
Just as Tennessee was the most moderate state in the South, Nashville was the most moderate city in the state. While it may have gone quiet by the time Bredesen arrived on the political scene, the city had boomed during the postwar period, attracting migrants from around the country and developing a reasonably tolerant social structure. It also helped that the city is home to a number of large universities; in addition to Vanderbilt, three major state universities lie within an hour of downtown Nashville. "Nashville is, as southern cities go, a pretty open environment," says Phil Ashford, who worked for Bredesen in the mayor's office. "I can remember going to some conference in Birmingham, and [former Alabama Governor] Guy Hunt was introducing people, and he said, 'Now don't get mad just 'cause these guys are Yankees,' and I thought, 'You'd never hear that in Nashville!' So it helped for Bredesen that he came into such an environment."
It was in the mayor's office that Bredesen developed the other half of his political persona, that of a supercompetent, growth-oriented technocrat. During his two terms, he built an arena, a football stadium, a new central library, and a Dell computer plant. Though he had never been to an NFL game in his life, Bredesen relentlessly pursued league franchises as an economic catalyst. After he convinced Bud Adams and the Houston Oilers to move to Nashville, newspapers across the country were filled with glowing features on the city and, increasingly, on its successful mayor. In 1996, Newsweek named him to its list of "25 mayors to watch." This publicity, in turn, helped fuel Nashville's economic growth, attracting businesses and highly skilled workers from around the country. By the time he left office in 1999, Bredesen had fundamentally altered Nashville's economy and culture. No longer a moribund town ruled by old-money gentry, Bredesen had made it one of the region's most dynamic cities. And he soon began laying plans to do the same thing statewide.
Bredesen learned early on that statewide respect is different from statewide popularity--after all, rural Tennesseans are as wary of Nashville politicians as Nashvillians once were of Northern businessmen. In fact, no Nashville mayor had won the governorship since World War II. In 1994, Bredesen ran unsuccessfully for governor. He lost in part because he made the same mistake he had made in his 1987 mayoral run, emphasizing those technocratic skills that had made him a good mayor rather than the engaged everyman image that had gotten him into office in the first place. "He didn't have a real clear message about what he really wanted to do, and he was not willing to articulate one," Ashford says.
So, when Bredesen ran again in 2002, he changed tactics, turning to veteran state political consultants like Cooley (later his deputy in the governor's office) and the wellconnected fund-raiser Johnny Hayes. With their help, he crafted a two-step campaign that focused first on biography, then the issues. He began not with a barrage of ads touting his economic achievements, but a long series of chili dinners and coffee stops in small-town diners, always highlighting his rural upbringing, something he had been wary of discussing before. Sure, I'm from the North, he told some 1,600 audiences during the campaign. But, like many of you, I grew up in a tiny town--Shortsville, New York, just north of the Finger Lakes and 100 miles from nothing. And sure, I'm rich now, but I grew up poor; my father moved away when I was young, and my grandmother, who lived with us, had to take in sewing to help keep us afloat. And, yes, I went to Harvard--but on a scholarship. That company I made millions on? I started it from scratch. "He always went back to the notion of, 'I'm like you guys. I'm not this guy from Harvard. I grew up in Shortsville,'" Ashford says. "That doesn't make people feel he's just another good ol' boy, but it does make someone who's uneasy with him because of his wealth and education look at him and say, 'Yeah, I like him.'" And, while this folksy demeanor didn't come naturally to Bredesen, his friends say he took to it readily. Stryker Warren, a Nashville executive, recalls going with him a few years ago to Home Depot for some building supplies. "We went in his pickup truck, with no security, looking like the average guy who needs something on a Saturday afternoon. And he'd stop and speak to people, take time for anyone who wanted to chat with him." So, when Hilleary tried to paint Bredesen as, according to the Tennessean, "a millionaire outsider who did not share the values of hard-working Tennesseans," rural voters knew better. In 1994, he won only 19 of Tennessee's 89 rural counties; this time he netted 50, including many in and around Hilleary's district.
To be sure, Bredesen wasn't just playing the good ol' boy manqué--he talked issues as well. But, what he realized is that, in the South, people won't listen to you on the issues until they are comfortable with you as a person. Or, as Brunson puts it, "Southern voters go through a two-step process. The first is a credentialing filter, which asks if a candidate shares their values. The second is on issues--education, health care, the economy. Bredesen understands you have to go through step one before you even start step two."
Bredesen actively appealed to Republican politicians and voters as well. "Here was a man who was willing to call Republican leaders in a county and say, 'You may not vote for me, but I'd like to pick your brain and share ideas,'" says his 2002 campaign manager, Stuart Brunson. It paid off: Bredesen brought in $22,000 from the Frist family, perhaps the state's leading GOP clan (Senator Bill Frist did not contribute). Even Ted Welch, a Bush "pioneer" and a Republican heavyweight, has nothing but praise for Bredesen. "I admire him," he says. "He will consider both sides and then pull the trigger."
Bredesen's ability to play both the number-cruncher and the small-town boy done good explains his high approval ratings, numbers he has achieved even while embarking on a decidedly unglamorous agenda, cutting the deficit and tackling TennCare. In fact, he seems to be so well-liked that voters trust him to make the right decision, regardless of whether they like the results. When, earlier this month, he announced that he would cut more than 300,000 enrollees from TennCare, people across the state expressed concern, but many of them also told reporters that they believed the governor when he said it was the only solution to the state's budget crunch. Bredesen's success, then, lies in his ability both to govern effectively and communicate his decisions to the public via a political persona that appeals to rural voters. "He has a style that wears well whether in a packed auditorium, with TV lights on him, or in a small town-hall meeting," says Warren, who, although a Republican, has supported Bredesen since his 1987 race. "He has convinced an inordinate number of Republicans that he will do what is right, even if it's not popular or along party lines."
Can Bredesen translate his success in Tennessee to the national scene? In some ways, he already has. He dominated the recent DNC regional caucus in Atlanta; not only did he deliver the keynote address--in which he excoriated national Democrats for not pursuing Southern voters--but he later interviewed each of the candidates for the DNC chairmanship individually. Along with John Edwards and Virginia Governor Mark Warner, Bredesen is often mentioned as a potential Democratic presidential candidate who could do well in Dixie. That has given Bredesen plenty of cachet in a party desperate to win beyond its blue-state base. And, while he remains publicly noncommittal about a bid for the presidency in 2008, Bredesen has quietly been reaching out through his surrogates to potential allies in the event he decides to run. When I asked him what he thought of his name popping up as a potential candidate, he cagily replied, "The people who have the opportunities are the ones who put their heads down and do the best job they can at the job at hand, and that produces the kinds of opportunities that people who put their heads up don't have."
Perhaps what makes Bredesen most unique as a political figure is that he came of age during what may, in retrospect, have been a fleeting moment in Southern politics: the generation or so between the late '60s and the mid-'90s, between the decline of the hidebound Democratic machines and the rise of the right-wing conservatives. This increasing conservatism has even enveloped the historically moderate Tennessee electorate. Predictably, Tennessee tilted to Bush in November. But the surprise came in exit polls showing that 46 percent of voters considered themselves conservative, up from 35 percent just four years ago--a drastic departure from the state's once-solid three-way split between conservatives, liberals, and independents. "We're at the end of a long transition in South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama, but it's less than complete in Tennessee," says Vanderbilt History Professor David Carlton. "But it's trending that way. The short-term outlook for southern Democrats is pretty bleak." Tennessee Republicans are already pledging to turn the next legislative session into a referendum on cultural issues, announcing a renewed push for a gay marriage amendment and bills to restrict abortion access--even while Bredesen and other Democrats try to keep the state focused on health care, jobs, and education.
But, even if the Republicans continue to make gains in Tennessee, Bredesen's own political future doesn't seem much in doubt. His approval ratings are so high that few Republicans are even discussing the 2006 gubernatorial race. And he seems unconcerned about the GOP's planned offensive on cultural issues. "That's just the noise of politics," he tells me. "I'm perfectly capable of keeping [cultural conservatives] somewhat at bay. I tell people, 'If you want to go do that, fine. If you think your playing a game is going to elect you or elect the next president out of Tennessee, you're welcome to try and do that. Now, when you're finished messing around with that, let's sit down and talk about what we've got to do about the state of education.' I think I'll just keep doing that, and that we'll be successful."
Indeed, Bredesen owes his political survival to his unique ability to win on pocketbook issues, such as health care and education, among voters who otherwise rely more and more on cultural conservatives to represent their interests. It's an ability that, should he decide to run for president, would allow him to attract swaths of economically challenged rural voters in places like Virginia and North Carolina, the very voters who commentators say should be prime Democratic constituents but who nevertheless repeatedly pull the lever for GOP candidates. Toward the end of our conversation, I ask the governor what sort of Democrat could win in the South. "You have to have some clarity of vision about why a Democrat should be elected that goes beyond anything we achieved in the last election," he says, leaning back in his chair. "There are a lot of people who would respond to a Democratic candidate, but that someone's got to articulate a vision." For those wondering just what such a candidate would look like, a visit to the Tennessee governor's office might be in order.
Bredesen is already more popular among republicans then Warner, and has a better background. The GOP had better be doing opposition research on this guy.
Bredesen won mostly due to some Tennessee Republicans finding a Democrat more palatable than a Conservative from their own party.
The DUmmies are convinced that Kerry lost because he wasn't liberal enough. This guy will never make it through the Dem primaries.
True, but the DUmpster kids are not even respected in there own party.
These guys tried to push Dennis kunich to a primary win and failed, they were also the first guys to give up on Kerry and supported Dean.
I used to think they were representive of the dems, but there seems to be a reason why even on the left, no one respects them.
Tennessee is solid Republican in the national elections.
We attend a church with 30,000 members,and the parking lot looks like Bush/Cheney convention.
You're right about that. Those Jim Henry "Republicans" in Knox county were the biggest part of Bredesen's margin of victory.
What conservative are you talking about. Bredesen didn't run against a conservative last election. He ran against an idiot named Sunquist
Bredeson isn't an attention sponge or a drama queen, which is precisely his appeal for a lot of people. He's low key, straightforward, and smart -- similar to Joe Lieberman. He regularly sits for an interview with our local conservative talkshow guy. I've been impressed the two or three times I've heard him. He seems to be running the state like a fiscal conservative. And on the social side, if he's got a liberal streak, he keeps a lid on it. He doesn't seem out of step with the culture of the state at all. Overall I'd rate his performance very highly. If the national Democrat party were like Phil Bredeson, this would be a much healthier country. We would then have a sane, responsible opposition party.
I figger Democrat = evil. Especially on the life issue.
Probably not, but then again, if enough Democrats are desperate enough for victory, it just might be possible. From what I've been reading about Bredesen, he sounds like a rational and honest Democrat. Even if I disagree politically with him on various issues, I'd love to have a politician like that as the Democratic nominee rather than an unprincipled lying opportunist.
Bredesen sounds like he'd be a tolerable President if the Democrats won the election. And the time will come, sooner or later, when the Democrats once again win the Presidency.
I see ya.
My fear of this guy, is that he's socially liberal, but he hides its well with a "talk about something else" type of style, he knows his social beliefs won't win, so he ignores his beliefs.
As a prez though, he'd probably pack the courts with liberals, and while this guy may be moderate, his party would surely drag him to his left, plus, on executive branch decisions, like national security, he's not going to surround himself with republicans or conservatives.
Van Hilleary. A more conservative Republican that did not get along well with the elites in E. TN.
No, he ran against a great conservative, Van Hilleary, who was stabbed in the back by the state RINO's.