Nationally, it seems, the view of former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen’s race to replace U.S. Sen. Bob Corker is being treated as something of a bellwether for the country’s mood.
If Bredesen, a Democrat, can win in the reddest of red states then the tide may be turning against Republicans.
Bredesen himself, however, doesn’t see the race in those terms.
“I have dealt some with the national press on this. I’m trying to stay out of it,” he said. “They get this narrative in their mind, they’ve got to fill it in that it’s all about Democrats over here and Republicans over here, fighting. What I find when I get out there is people’s political views are much more nuanced than that. If you look at my reelection the number of Republicans who voted for me in that had to be enormous and what they had to say is ‘I belong to this party but this person is saying something perfectly acceptable to me. I think he’ll do a good job and I’m willing to vote for him.’”
Bredesen said he tells people he belongs to an organization, the Democratic Party, but it’s an organization, not a religion.
“I feel perfectly free to have my opinion about stuff that’s outside the Democratic Party,” he said. “I guess what I’m saying is there’s a lot of pressure from the national press to treat this in very narrow terms. It’s all about this red versus blue conflict. Maybe they think it’s for the control for the Senate. I don’t think that reflects reality. Already, just from the polling there have to be a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump two years ago who say they’re voting for me this time.”
As an example of that narrative, this week Politico reported kind remarks Corker made about his possible replacement.
“The thing that kind of struck me the most was we’ve really come to the point in this country where two guys have been friends for 20 years and one of them says something nice about the other it becomes national news, just because we’re in different parties,” Bredesen said. “It’s a lot more complicated than if someone’s red or blue.”
Bredesen sees himself as a centrist. In fact, fiscally, at least, his policies seem fairly in line with prominent Tennessee leaders like Corker and Gov. Bill Haslam.
“What I call the economic wing of the Republican Party, I think they’re very comfortable with me. I was a corporate CEO before I got into this and certainly as governor I was fiscally very conservative,” he said. “Where I’ve always tried to be in general, I think it’s wrong to stick labels on things, on sort of fiscal and business-like matters I’ve always been very conservative. And remember, my term as governor sort of bracketed that whole Great Recession so I had a lot of fiscal issues to deal with. We got ourselves through those years and left the state in good shape. Haslam has said that 100 times.
“While there are differences between a Corker, a Haslam and myself, I don’t think they’re nearly as stark as the differences within the Republican Party.”
For example, Bredesen said he supported the cutting of the corporate tax rate to help businesses compete internationally while staying on American soil, though he would have closed more loopholes and done less borrowing.
“I think that was absolutely justified,” he said. “It really helps us to level that playing field.”
Bredesen left the governor’s office eight years ago, and much in the country has changed in those eight years, but the former governor said the reality is the state hasn’t changed as much as some might perceive.
“I think there’s not as much difference as people sometimes think,” he said. “I think that for a lot of Tennesseans, where they are looking to have problems solved is changing. I don’t think their underlying political views are changing. As an example, we don’t have party registration here, we just self-declare what you are … the number of Republicans hasn’t changed in the state, 42 or 43 percent any way you take it. What’s changed is people have abandoned calling themselves Democrat wholesale and started calling themselves Independents.”
Bredesen even said he understands the voter frustration that helped put President Donald Trump in the White House.
“I’m from a rural area, where most of my relatives voted for Trump,” he said. “I know them. They’re not stupid, they’re not mini-IQ, they’re not racist and this kind of stuff. They are people who’ve got their own concerns and they don’t see anything going on in Washington addressing the stuff that’s important to them and so they’re willing to throw a ‘Hail Mary’ pass and see what happens.
“My message to them is ‘I understand your problems, let me offer you some different kind of solutions.’”
Part of those solutions involves being a voice of compromise, breaking some the party-encrusted gridlock that has left Washington unable to tackle big issues.
How do you tackle those big issues?
Well, Bredesen says, it’s a little like eating an elephant. Take small bites.
“One of the things I found out as governor, and I got a lot done across party lines, is don’t start with the hardest problem,” he said. “Find something little ones that you can kind of work together on, get used to doing that kind of stuff and then you’re in a position to do some of the harder stuff.”
“Back when I was mayor, you know, we brought the football team in and that was a real fight. I couldn’t have done that when I was first mayor. You had to have had things you’ve done together. You work with the council, you have some successes and then you can do something.”
That approach is part of how Bredesen would begin to address immigration issues affecting the country.
“Let’s deal with the dreamer problem. We have some common ground there,” Bredesen said. “There are a lot of people who would like to see that solved and understand it’s more of a moral issue.”
Bredesen said he wants to go to Washington to be a coalition builder, to help break the cycle of two groups of people yelling at each other across the room.
“In the Senate, you get 12, 15 people from both parties, who are willing to make this work, put compromise high on their list, you start to have a bloc making things operate properly,” he said, adding his skillset fits that bill.
Bredesen said one of the key areas he wants to try and make compromise is healthcare, where he worked in the private sector, and an issue he had to deal heavily with in Nashville with TennCare.
“I think that’s area that is rich for finding things to do together,” Bredesen said. “I was not a fan of the Affordable Care Act but when it passed, I said, ‘it’s the law of the land, let’s make it work.’ I think there’s some pretty straightforward things to do to get it stabilized. I think what’s happening now is that everything is so uncertain, that what insurers are having to do is assume the worst on everything and price products that way.”
Bredesen also said he has an interest in economic development particularly in rural areas. In Tennessee, he said, the urban areas are doing pretty well but some of the rural communities are getting left behind.
“That’s an area I would really like to work on,” he said. “I think a lot of that frustration is what drove a lot of the Trump voters. It certainly did here.”
At the end of the day, Bredesen said, Tennesseans in general seemed to think he did a good job as governor and he’s hoping those same voters will give him a chance in the Senate.
“I got 70 percent of the vote or something when I ran for reelection and I’m hoping a lot of those people will say ‘I like what he did as governor and I’m willing to give him a chance,’” he said.