Sunday, November 16, 2008

Tough Times for Tennessee Democrats

While President-elect Barack Obama was leading the Democratic Party to sweeping victories in most of the country on November 4th, the oldest political party on earth was suffering crushing defeats in the Volunteer State. Not only did PE Obama underperform Sen. John Kerry's anemic 2004 numbers in Tennessee, the Democratic challenger (Bob Tuke) for the US Senate seat held by Republican Lamar Alexander was utterly humiliated in one of the worst thrashings a serious Democratic candidate for state-wide office has ever endured in the land of Andrew Jackson.

Even more devastating to Democrats in TN, the Republicans seized control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since Reconstruction. The defeats suffered by Democrats spanned the state, with stunning losses in all three of Tennessee's historic "grand divisions" (East, Middle and West). With redistricting looming after the 2010 census, GOP control of the legislature most likely portends even more future electoral losses for Tennessee Democrats.

As a dyed-in-the-wool, double-dipped, true-believing, yellow-dog Democrat, it is very painful for me to admit this, but the magnitude of the catastrophe which befell the Tennessee Democratic Party (TNDP) twelve days ago is nothing short of breathtaking. Much more hurtful is the realization that this need not have happened. Although Tennessee is deep in the Red Belt, Democrats can win in these states. TNDP officials' whining about Tennessee's strong Republican leanings and their gnashing of teeth about the steep demographic challenges we face won't cut it. 

Just look around at our neighboring states, every one of them as ruby-red as Tennessee. In KY, NC, VA, GA and even MS, Democrats ran credible state and local campaigns in 2008. Democratic candidates won US Senate and gubernatorial races in VA and NC, forced a run-off in the GA Senate contest and ran valiant state wide campaigns for the US Senate in KY and MS. Why couldn't Tennessee Democrats manage to do the same?

The sad, awful truth is that the TNDP has become the captive of an inept, corrupt, power-hungry network of good old boys determined to hold on to their idea of political relevance no matter what. Compounding their incompetence and greed, many of the leaders of the TNDP are in fact DINOs (Democrats In Name Only), fleeing in terror at any mention by the Republicans of hot-button issues like God, guns or gays. Many of these DINOs pay only lip-service to the national Democratic Party, it's leaders and its core beliefs. They've sold their souls to the Republican donors who largely fund their campaigns these days. A state political party that has lost its moral fiber is living on borrowed time.

On November 4th, time ran out and the "no matter what" happened.  The TNDP has been shown the door by the voters of Tennessee. As disheartening as election day was, this is no time for Tennessee Democrats to give up. Instead, it's time to start over. Tennessee Democrats should look at this electoral debacle as an opportunity for rebirth, re-commitment and a renewal of our moral courage. 

We can - and should - forgive the unhelpful, tepid endorsement of the Obama-Biden ticket by our sitting Democratic governor (Phil Bredesen) and a post-election cheap shot at progressive bloggers by the head of the TNDP (Gray Sasser). Even the TNDP's disgraceful persecution of a Democratic state senator (Rosalind Kurita), who dared defy the Party big-wigs, can be put behind us. Focusing on the sins of the past will not get us where we need to be. Let us just hope that they are lessons learned.

So, take heart. There are, indeed, some signs of hope. In the chaotic days since the election, it seems that all of the top officials of the TNDP have decided to resign in the near future. A good thing, that. Moreover, Tennessee Democrats are blessed with some leaders of real courage and conviction. US Representatives Jim Cooper and Steve Cohen come to mind. We also have two nationally prominent Democrats who can help lead their native state's party out of the wilderness: former Vice-President Al Gore and former US Representative Harold Ford, Jr., who now heads the Democratic Leadership Council. Both of these fine men can, and should, provide much-needed guidance to a state party that has lost its way -- and nearly everything else. 

With a new leadership team at the helm, a sincere outreach to all of the key Democratic constituencies (including progressive bloggers), a genuine effort to be inclusive and a complete break with the good old boy politics of the past, the TNDP can return to being the vibrant, competitive party it once was. Anything less, I fear, will only lead to decades more of disappointing Novembers for Tennessee Democrats. (See this related post.)

Check out these Tennessee Blogs for more on this topic:


PoliticalFunny said...

What gets me is we are losing jobs like crazy here. In Shelbyville they are closing down the Sharpie plant. There is a part of me that feels really bad for these families and then there is a more cynical side that thinks ," What did you expect?". It is hard to feel bad when the states votes for Bush, Bush, and then McCain because they still have not learned anything! And it is even more difficult to understand that mentality.

Old Marine said...

Well said, Steven. Today's Tennessee Democrats are NOT Frank Clement Democrats.

Former State Senator John Wilder is the poster boy for what is wrong with the Democratic Party in Tennessee. He wielded enormous influence for a very long time, and sacrificed the well being of the electorate along the way.

Tennessee voters have abandonded Jackson's Party, because it has failed to perform. Despite the Republican shell game of "calling the (political) dance", Democrats in Tennessee are more reviled for their incompetence and utter disregard for issues near and dear to the public (roads, education, meaningful tax reform, immigration issues) than they are about panic button issues like gun control issues and church issues (abortion, gay marriage).

Tennessee Democrats have so violently avoided these national fringe issues, and have so utterly dropped the ball on the REAL issues, that they have become irrelevant.

Democrats like Bob Tuke, Harold Ford, Jr., and Rosalind Kurita have demonstrated their capacity to lead and to act. Until such time as the Senate Democratic Caucus and TNDP Executive Committee realize that Kurita did the State of Tennessee a favor by withholding her vote from Wilder, there is little hope for anything beyond a one-party system in our State Government. The "what's in it for me" mind set has to be smashed.

The TNDP needed a serious blood transfusion and changing of the guard ten years ago. November 4th's repudiation by the voters is not a wake-up call; rather, it is taps.

David Stricklin
Smyrna TN

Stephen said...

politicalfunny: Thanks for your comment. I agree with you in not understanding why voters in TN continue to cast ballots against their own economic interests. It is very hard to understand.

David (oldmarine): Thanks for your always insightful comments. I think you and I are on the same page. It's a great pity that such a good, talented and decent man as Bob Tuke was sacrificed by the TNDP. He deserved better -- much better -- than he got from his party.