Culminating a demoralizing political season for Tennessee progressives, Republicans next week will gain the governorship, expand their U.S. House delegation, and sustain state House majorities. The gubernatorial contest is the race whose outcome is least in doubt, but even so, liberal Democrats going to the polls face a dilemma as they gaze upon the name Mike McWherter at the top of the ticket: Should I vote for this guy? Do I have to?
For loyal party regulars there’s really no dilemma. McWherter may be inexperienced politically, conservative ideologically, and on the jejune side intellectually, but he’s the nominee, and he comes from hearty Democratic family stock. Yellow dogs are creatures of moral clarity: McWherter’s the Democrat, so pull the damn lever (or touch the damn screen, as it were).
But for those on the left who see McWherter’s candidacy as a new low in efforts by Democrats to be taken seriously in Tennessee politics, the calculus is different.
Yes, ours is a very red state, and a successful Democrat is apt to be a moderate one. But while there’s a plenty of daylight between moderate and extremely conservative, some of McWherter’s positions and postures veer alarmingly toward the latter.
To name a few: McWherter opposes the Obama challenge to Arizona’s immigration law, supports a same-sex couple adoption ban, frowns on collective bargaining by public employees, and thinks creationism should be taught in public schools.
With polls flagging, a desperate McWherter has resorted to the sort of vapid, jingoistic tactics that are the stock in trade of the rabid right. First he floated an insinuation that a few degrees of separation between Haslam’s oil company and a German firm doing business in Iran means that Haslam family profits are financing Iran’s pursuit of nukes. Then McWherter rolled out a TV ad blasting Haslam’s company for importing oil “from socialist Venezuela.” These kinds of appeals to ignorance and fear are off-putting enough when Republicans do it; in the hands of a Democrat, they’re detestable and simply unacceptable.
The McWherter campaign’s fecklessness has had the unintended effect of making the insipid and unimaginative Bill Haslam look sharp and accomplished in comparison. In their debates, McWherter spoke prosaically in simple sentences thick with sloganeering but decidedly thin on substance or detail. Haslam, too, had little to offer in the way of serious policy innovations, but did manage to embellish his platitudes with actual facts and figures, leading the casual viewer to conclude that Haslam is far more prepared and informed than his opponent, and hardly more conservative.
So it comes as no surprise that a hefty number of Democrats are seriously considering voting for Haslam. They should think twice before doing so. Haslam has worked hard to cultivate an image of Bredesenian competence and restraint, and compared with the right-wing fanatics he took down in the GOP primary, Haslam comes off as moderation personified. But Haslam has done virtually nothing in his campaign to persuade us that he will shield us from his party’s extremist, retrograde legislative impulses.
The real Democratic malpractice here emerges less from the flaws of the candidate than from the party establishment’s enabling of this fiasco. The Democratic primary field at one time featured two promising, experienced candidates: former House leader Kim McMillan and veteran state Sen. Jim Kyle of Memphis. But wait, party regulars insisted, only McWherter has the name and the access to money to go the distance. A year later as the nominee, he’s being outspent by an order of magnitude and is hovering at gadfly levels in the polls. For this we needed the magic McWherter name?
Tennessee progressives are justifiably disgusted at this state of affairs, and the way to send that message to the party is to just say no and sit this race out.
Bruce Barry is a professor of management and sociology at Vanderbilt University, and a contributing writer for the Nashville Scene.