Many will remember Gov. Phil Bredesen for many things: Keeping public education funding levels afloat, resisting the siren song of a general sales tax increase, landing a boatload of new businesses for the state, giving tens of thousands of TennCare recipients the heave-ho, navigating the state through the turbulent waters of an epic flood and anchoring his pronouncements with enough nautical metaphors to shame Popeye the Sailor Man.
But Bredesen, who is passing control of the helm to a successor with a similar background in business and politics, will be leaving behind what he believes is a legacy more fairly assessed at some point over the horizon than at these particular coordinates of space and time.
“If I leave office and people in Tennessee are that much more impatient for progress or demanding of state government and what it does, then I will consider it to be a successful job,” he told TNReport in the waning days of his tenure.
The highlights of the sit-down interview include Bredesen’s views not just on his legacy, but on issues facing the state and his party going forward, tensions in the relationship between the states and the federal government, the pitfalls, frustrations and hypocrisies of politics in general, and discussion about his book on health care reform.
TNReport: Compare your time spent in business with your time in office. Which has been more fulfilling for you?
Gov. Phil Bredesen: I enjoyed both. I enjoy being in the business world, and if it turned out I had stayed there I would have been more than happy. I have to say I’ve never done anything remotely as fulfilling as being governor for the past eight years. It’s a tough job in many ways – there’s so many people who peck at you and and so many people have other agendas and all those kinds of things. But when you get things done, they’re real things that are going to make a difference for people. I have found the job of governor to be the most interesting and the most challenging and certainly the most rewarding of any I’ve ever had.
TNR: And the most frustrating?
Bredesen: It can be frustrating at times. Primarily, I guess I would say that sometimes people’s agendas are more diverse in politics than they are in business. Business is supposed to be successful, to make money and deliver good products and those kinds of things. The agendas in politics are a lot wider, sometimes you just get people whose agendas I think are not what the founders of the country imagined our agendas would be, and I find that frustrating.
TNR: The individual mandate of the health care reform goes back to Massachusetts and GOP Gov. Mitt Romney. You wrote about that in your book and talked about how Republicans were champions of that mandate early on, yet last session you had Republicans railing against it on the floor and Democrats defending it. I know you envision yourself as a centrist – is that frustrating to you, the flipping of positions. How do you view that debate?
Bredesen: This playing out in every issue. I mean the Democratic-Republican axis — there has to be a Democrat opinion, a Republican opinion. (But that’s) not what this democracy is supposed to be about. It’s debilitating to it. I guess what I’d like to say is if we’re going to force everything into this axis of there being a Democratic point of view and a Republican point of view, and that’s where all the argument takes place, we’re never going to solve any of the big problems. I think that when Republicans get together in a room and talk together, nothing very interesting comes out of that. And frankly, when Democrats get in a room together and talk, nothing very interesting comes out of that. I think the really interesting things happen when you force people to try to find a common ground and get out of that ‘D’ verses ‘R’ stuff and talk about how you really solve the problems and what are the values you are bringing to the solution of those problems. That’s just a place where I’m sort of differing from where the Congress is or Washington is right now. Actually, we need to get to a more sensible way of solving these problems.
TNR: You’ve written this book (Fresh Medicine: How to Fix Reform and Build a Sustainable Health Care System) and you obviously have a history with health care – but where are you trying to go with it? You‘ve said you don’t see yourself running for election again, but where do you go from here after having started and engaged in this conversation about health care?
Bredesen: I wrote the book because I had some strong feelings that what we were doing was not adequate. I don’t like to criticize without offering an alternative. This book was not the obligatory “I’m running for office and these are the values my grandmother taught me.” It was, “I’ve been in this field for a long time, here’s a different voice of what this country might do.” I’ve had a bunch of invitations to speak to different groups about this, and I’ll take advantage of those and we’ll see where those lead.
TNR: Could you give a summary of your views on the concepts of federalism or state’s rights.
Bredesen: The issue in my mind, and I said this much in the book, is that I think one of the strengths of this country is its federalism, distinct divisions of powers and spheres of activity between states and the government — just as I think the separation of powers in the national government is healthy and produces a tension that is good for the country. Surely the states are more than administrative arms for the federal government. But it sure deserves some careful consideration out of this ideological yelling at each other about where this begins and ends. Now what we’re going to do is compel behavior by taxing the absence of it. That seems to be a whole new notion of what the powers of the federal government involved are and it certainly makes me uncomfortable. The problem is that this argument has been colored in my lifetime. “States’ rights” for most of that time meant segregation – that’s what it was about. And now it’s brought up by the tea party along with lots of other crazy issues. The point I was trying to make is to say, look, this issue of where does the federal government’s power begin and end — I don’t think you have to go back to what the founders of the Constitution thought. The world has evolved a lot since then. It deserves real discussion and examination and not being a fringe issue for either segregationists or tea party members. I don’t care for it.
TNR: In terms of your last eight years, you were very popular among people, oddly in a year when Democrats weren’t very popular. What would you attribute your own success to in that regard, with Tennessee Democrats and mistakes they’ve made?
Bredesen: I have this very strong feeling that elections are a lot of fun, and they’re contact sports, and we all go out and work for our party and so on. I really do think people want to see that when (elections) are over, that stuff gets push down a long way, (and politicians) get down to business to trying to get things done. I feel very, very strongly the notion that the day I got sworn in as governor, I was governor of all the people of Tennessee, and not the liberals and moderates and not the central (part of the state), leaving out the east, or something like that. For a time, you’re the governor of all the people of the state. I just learned when I got here at the Capitol, this place is a pressure cooker. There’s a one mile circle where all this stuff takes place that bears no relationship to the rest of the state. There’s this whole dynamic that takes place in this area here, and it’s between the press and the lobbyists and Legislature and the administration and all that stuff. There was some of that in the book saying look – what I need to do is get out of this thing and just keep my eyes focused on what people are thinking in Waffle Houses and Wal-Marts out there. If you can explain what you want to do, and you get some head nods from those people who I just described out here who are citizens of the state, you’ve got a plan and that’s a good place to be, whether or not the press likes it, whether or not the Legislature likes it.
TNR: You have said that you take pains to avoid conflicts or appearances of conflicts of interest. As of late, there’s been the issue with (Bredesen administration officials) Matt Kisber and Reagan Farr and Silicon Ranch Corp. Do you think that there’s nothing at all to see there – or is it something that’s been totally conjured up by the press? Or do you think that, from an objective standpoint, someone could rationally say that’s a little strange that those three individuals are going into business with one another?
Bredesen: I’m disappointed in how that was handled by the press, and I don’t have any other comments about it.
TNR: What about how the press has handled it are you disappointed with?
Bredesen: (Unintelligible — no comment.)
TNR: When you look back on your tenure, what are you going to be telling your grandkids about?
Bredesen: I’ve always seen this job primarily as wanting to change the expectations of people about their state, and their state government, and what can be achieved. In a way, the nicest thing for me about the Race to the Top is not the half a billion dollars. I believe that’s going to be very helpful and I don’t discount it at all. But there’s an awful lot of people in the state of Tennessee who looked up and said we don’t have to be 48th or 46th in this stuff. Here’s an objective example where we’re at the very, very top of the pack. Our pre-K program has some of those same aspects. If I leave office and people in Tennessee are just that much more impatient for progress, or that much more demanding of state government and what it does, then I will consider it to be a successful term.
TNR: How do you gauge that?
Bredesen: The future will have to gauge that. I feel it’s true now, whether it’s a flash in the pan or something that sustained, or is yet to be seen. I certainly think in things like economic development and things like education of all levels, people’s heads are in a different place today in terms of what’s possible in the state. When I was mayor of Nashville it was a different place in 1999 than it was in ‘91 in part because people had such higher expectations. In ‘91 the idea of a pro sports team was way out in the far wings of absurdity, in ‘99 we had two of them. People were mad at me…that I don’t have a third one. I just think that’s a great thing to have happened. When a young person is growing up, one of the things you want them to have is just this sense that anything is possible, and the real world can incorporate different success. I feel the same about the communities we live in here. I hope that as time goes on, their expectations of the Legislature and the governor continue to grow. Their expectations of what we can achieve in education and business development and anything else continue to grow. It’s like increasing standards in the schools — that’s the first thing they do to get better performance. I think the public’s expectations of government are higher. In the end, government will respond to that and do better.
This interview has been edited for continuity and clarity.