Interview with Governor Phil Bredesen

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(Note: The interview with Governor Bredesen was conducted on Monday, June 30 in Chicago at the DLC's Annual Conversation.)

RCP: I'm going to start by asking you the question that I could not get Congressman Ford to answer earlier, which is, given what you know about Barack Obama, do you think he's a progressive who is now posing as a centrist, or do you think he's a centrist who posed as a progressive in the primaries?

BREDESEN: I'm not sure I want to answer the question in exactly those terms. I don't know enough about him to be able to start slapping labels on him. I think he's somewhat a newcomer to the world of politics. I suspect there are areas in which his views are not fully formed. I happen to think that's a very good thing. I think the last thing you want in a president is someone who knows all the answers the day they come in the door.

I think what Harold said is right: I think he springs from roots of great patriotism and love of country.

Most of the great presidents have grown in many ways from what they brought to the door of the office. I think that office is almost unique in its demand for people to set things behind them and to continue to grow. And I think he's someone, from what I can tell, who has the personality and has the intellect to do that.

So I don't know enough to label him. And I would hate to do so because I think what the presidency needs is an agile, intelligent mind, looking at some of these problems from a basis of deep patriotism not of some particular solidly constructed view of the world.

RCP: Right, but, he has tacked to the middle. He has changed position on public financing, on FISA he said he would filibuster a bill and now he's saying he's perfectly with the compromise on immunity for telecommunication companies. Does that damage his brand as a transformational figure of new politics?

BREDESEN: I think that's just one where it's a - when you start changing your mind you enter a gray area. You certainly get to do it once or twice. If you do it forty times it shows some lack of (inaudible)

RCP: But is it especially dangerous for him given that he is so new to the country, that the country doesn't necessarily know him?

BREDESEN: I think he certainly has to be careful about that. But I would far rather see someone who adjusts, rather than simply persists forward in some point of view which he may not hold for the sake of a false consistency.

I guess what I would say is: I'm aware he's changed his position on some issues. So has John McCain. It certainly has not risen to the level, with me, of any questions about whether he shifts with the way the wind is blowing as opposed to having deep-seated views. I think he's a very intelligent man who probably will change his views on some issues as time goes on.

RCP: You said before, and you said again at the press conference, you made a bit of news by saying he wasn't going to be competitive in Tennessee, or it didn't look that way. Is that still your read on the situation?

BREDESEN: Yeah. I don't think that's any news, every time I see a list of Southern states - there was one in the New York Times this morning - that are in play, Tennessee is not on the list. I think I'm just reflecting what other people have recognized.

I think today, it's not competitive. I think it could be. Bill Clinton won Tennessee twice. One of the reasons I'm here [at the DLC] is that Tennessee is a bellwether state. There's no question about it. We have missed the presidency once since the 1920's, and that was in 1960 - a long time ago. So while I think sometimes people see it as a regional outlier of some sort, I think in fact it's not. It's right in the middle. Nobody's gotten in perfect.

And if he's not competitive today in Tennessee, that to me is a sign of saying well, look, things change and you may well - I believe he's going to win and he may be able well win without Tennessee - but I think he'd be much more likely to carry the Ohios and Missouris and Virginias and North Carolinas, and those states conceivably are in play, if he's got something to say to mainstream Tennesseans.

Certainly in any conversation I've ever had with him I've urged that notion on, that when you move beyond on the primary you're talking to a different group of people. Yeah, you have to turn out the vote of the true believers, but I don't think you can win the presidency - or a governorship - without talking to that 20% in the middle who sometimes vote one way and sometimes vote another. And I think he has the great ability to do that.

When I came to Tennessee and first ran for office I was from the north, and I was a big city mayor - no big city mayor had ever been elected governor of Tennessee before - there's a little chasm you gotta cross. They're kind of looking across a little chasm at you as somebody from maybe a different world. But people are very open, if you're willing to show 'em who you are a little bit you can close that chasm up and then talk to them about issues and other things.

RCP: So that chasm is not issue based -

BREDESEN: No I think it's just more of a -

RCP: It's cultural.

BREDESEN: I think the people in Tennessee looked at me as a me a Northerner, a big city mayor, a Harvard graduate. What's that go to do with somebody who's a school teacher in Winchester, Tennessee?

And I think there's a lot of people who look at Barack Obama that way: State Senator from Illinois, was a community activist in South Chicago. What's that got to do with Winchester, Tennessee?

Now I think he's got very good answers for that question. But I think it's a two stage process. You have to establish your bona fides, that you're somebody who - they don't necessarily have to agree with every way you see the world, but you see the world in some of the same kinds of terms that they do.

RCP: Can you give me a couple of examples of what that would be? If you were advising him, what would you suggest?

BREDESEN: I certainly think that on healthcare, that some down to earth, practical things that moved healthcare into the mainstream more like Social Security as opposed to billing out programs for the poor - would play very well in Tennessee. That's a little different that the Democratic candidates typically put forward.

I think you have to find that school teacher and that construction worker and talk turkey. Republicans have done a great job: strength of family, low taxes, aggressive view of our interests in the world. It plays well with that group. We have to have an alternative.

RCP: But if it's more of a cultural gap that needs to be bridged before you can start talking about policy -

BREDESEN: Very few people vote on issues, they vote on a sense of connection with people, they vote on a sense of 'is that somebody I can trust?" I think most people instinctively know that the things that will define a presidency are not the things that happen in an election. I mean, certainly George Bush's presidency is totally defined by things that weren't even issues during the election.

So I think they look beyond that to how does this person handle problems? Do they share some basic values with me?

As I said, I think Barack Obama has an astonishing ability to establish those connections. I think he's got a ways more to go.

RCP: But do you think - Congressman Ford was very critical of Obama during the primary season for basically writing off places like West Virginia and Kentucky. Ford said, after John Edwards' endorsement, that he would have advised the Senator to go to those states and walk across the state, go into diners, shake hands, and let people know and establish those connections.

BREDESEN: Well, in retrospect that might have been a good thing to do. But, you know, you've got to win the primary before you can be president. I think he was very focused on putting the votes together, putting the delegates together, to win the primary.

RCP: But do you see that he's changed his strategy in that respect? Is he paying more attention to those voters?

BREDESEN: From what I can see so far - but I'm not an infinitely close follower of the campaign - but yeah, I think there is a sense of his reaching out. When he was up here at the dinner we had last week, we talked a little bit about, 'OK, it's time to move - not abandon, but to kind of move beyond and enlarge the circle from what's inside a Democratic primary voter, and how you talk about these things in terms of big issues.

And for a while, for a couple weeks there, the campaign got mired down into each side nitpicking at the other over who had the sleaziest staff , or something like that. And I think he's just a much better candidate, and a much better person than that, and is now back talking about some of the larger issues.

RCP: So do you sense that Democrats are unified and that Hillary Clinton supporters have put it behind them?

BREDESEN: Again, I can only talk about Tennessee, really. There were some very strong - Senator Clinton did very well in Tennessee. And because of the connection with Arkansas and Governor McWherter, who was probably Bill Clinton's earliest governor supporter, there was a strong contingent there. They're over it. I think there's a sense of pulling together.

I think there are still people that Senator Obama has to convince, but it's these cultural things, it's not that 'I was for Hillary and I don't like anybody who's not Hillary.'

RCP: Again, speaking from the Tennessee perspective, what are the most important issues that you see?

BREDESEN: Tennesseans right now - let me say first that I think everybody feels there has to be some movement in some direction on the war in Iraq. Even some fairly conservative people are very troubled by the length of it, the number of casualties, and the sort of unending sense of it. So setting that aside for a moment - and I think that's, whether it's a Democrat or Republican, they'll have to do something about Iraq.

Beyond that, Tennesseans are concerned about bread and butter issues right now. They're concerned about losing jobs, they're concerned about competitiveness - which often shows up in things like 'we don't like NAFTA'. Lot of concern about education, in part because I've really made it a centerpiece of things and I hope elevated it to there. And I think healthcare is a serious issue, it's kind of the gorilla in the room right now.

But I think somebody who, not necessarily has all the answers, but is convincing that they will intelligently tackle these issues, would be a very attractive candidate in Tennessee. That's how Bill Clinton won, I think.

RCP: What's your sense as you look across the aisle. Republicans have lost special election after special election this year. There seems to be a borderline sense of panic. Is that the sense you get of how things are in Tennessee as well?

BREDESEN: It is the sense I get. There's no competitive Congressional races this year, so I don't see any change in that. There's one Republican Senator up, and I'll be for the Democrat, but they're going to have a tough time.

I think we will see nationally some further gains in the two areas Congress, but I keep telling everybody, though, that I don't think this election is a slam dunk at all. I think we would be really stupid to assume that it is. I think John McCain is very attractive as a candidate in a lot of ways.

And my own personal experience is that these elections where people are engaged enough that they know some of the details, they can easily differentiate the individuals within a party. In other words, I think John McCain can get enough distance from George Bush to not have that be an issue. It's a lot harder in a Congressional race where people are less focused on things.

The example I would give is that in my race for governor, I came into it with a lot of things going for me. The previous Republican governor had been deeply unpopular for proposing an income tax. Tenncare, the healthcare system, was probably the biggest issue in the state, and you can't have any better credentials than I had to solve that particular set of issues. And the other side, the other candidate ran a good campaign, but not an amazing one. I won by three points.

What is was, was that the other candidate did a very good job of distancing himself and presenting himself as an independent person with independent views from the previous Republican governor. And I just believe John McCain can do exactly the same thing. That people will, at the level of the president, make those distinctions.

RCP: So do you buy the idea that Obama's going to redraw the electoral map and win places like Georgia, and that he's spending money in places like Alaska, which hasn't voted Democratic since 1964?

BREDESEN: I don't know if I buy it yet or not. I certainly think that I would like to be part of a Democratic party that contested more broadly, because I just very much believe in a muscular Democratic party that attracts - that's not a party of a few particular segments of the population but has broad attractiveness to working class people in general.

I think that when you have the fundraising ability that Senator Obama has, it's a great way to force your opponent to go spend money. You contest these things, I mean, it's time and money that John McCain is going to have to spend in these other areas so as not to lose it. So I happen to think it's an intelligent strategy. Frankly, I'd love for both parties to get in a position to where you contest a lot more states. I actually think it'd be a lot healthier for democracy.

RCP: So you see this being a close election in November?


RCP: Coming down to the same set of states we've been focused on in the past?

BREDESEN: You know, it depends on how he redraws the map. You could throw in North Carolina and Virginia in there for him. I could be proven very, very wrong. I certainly know people who think he's either going to win 35 states or lose 35 states.

But, certainly, based on Tennessee as a good example of a swing state, I think it's going to be a close election. I've talked to friends of mine in California who can't even conceive of the possibility that John McCain would win and I just tell them, 'that's not the way it is in a lot of parts of the country.' We can win, but it's got to be with an A campaign.

RCP: Governor Bredesen, thank you very much for your time.

Tom Bevan is the Co-Founder & Publisher of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email:, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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