A Tale of Two Bredesens

blackburn bredesen debate

A Tale of Two Bredesens

The final Senate debate revolves around whether the former governor
is pragmatic or partisan.

by scott barker •october 11, 2018


 (mark humphrey/associated press)         

The Senate debate on Wednesday between U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn and former Gov. Phil Bredesen was short on policy prescriptions and long on political proclivities -- Bredesen’s in particular.

Bredesen invokes Reagan, Blackburn invokes Hillary and Bernie.

Both candidates focused on Bredesen’s politics. Republican Blackburn attempted to link him to every Democrat despised by the GOP base, especially Hillary Clinton. Bredesen tried to cast himself as a bipartisan pragmatist. Both positions made sense, given Republican President Donald Trump’s 26-point victory margin in Tennessee in 2016.

The debate was held, without a live audience, in the Toyota Auditorium at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee. WATE-TV and WUOT-FM broadcast the event locally. Television news anchors Kristen Farley of Knoxville’s WATE-TV, Richard Ransom of Local 24 News in Memphis and Bob Mueller of WKRN-TV in Nashville asked questions of the candidates for a little short of an hour.

The barbs came out with the first question. Asked about his controversial comments in support of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s bitterly fought confirmation, Bredesen said, “I wanted to take my time with this because the obligation of a senator is to consider all the facts.”

Psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford accused Kavanaugh of attempting to rape her in high school. Both gave compelling testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the Senate confirmed Kavanaugh’s appointment by a 50-48 margin. Without more information, Bredesen said, “I just came to the conclusion that (the allegations) didn’t rise to the level of disqualification for the Supreme Court.”

Blackburn said Tennesseans wanted Kavanaugh confirmed and blamed Bredesen’s delay in coming to a decision about the nomination on sexual harassment within his two terms as governor.

“That was the shortest civil debate we’ve ever had,” Bredesen quipped, adding that he didn’t want the issue “weaponized.” After Blackburn returned to the topic, he said, “We had an issue with someone. We got rid of that person the very next day and tried to get help for the victim.”

Blackburn termed the Democrats’ treatment of Kavanaugh “character assassination,” adding that she’s certain something happened to Ford as well. She said the #metoo movement has had a positive effect. “The good thing is the shame is on the perpetrator now, which is where it belongs,” she said.

Other topics included gun reform, health care, and immigration. Regardless of the question, however, the candidates took turns discussing Bredesen’s political leanings. Blackburn, who in a previous debate repeatedly attempted to link Bredesen to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, mentioned Clinton nearly two dozen times, including several references to Bredesen’s $33,400 in campaign contributions to Clinton. She also tried to tie him to former President Barack Obama, Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder, and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Blackburn repeatedly commented on Bredesen’s recent support from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is an outspoken gun control advocate.

Both said they would like to enhance the background check system to keep people with mental illness from owning firearms. Bredesen said that should be accomplished through a judicial process. Blackburn agreed. “We can protect the 2nd Amendment and protect people in public places, which is something we’ve done throughout our history,” she said.

Blackburn touted her endorsements from the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Rifle Association, noting that she has an A rating from the NRA while the organization gave Bredesen a D. Bredesen countered that he’s been a gun owner his entire life and that the NRA has not forgiven him for his veto of the “Guns in Bars” bill. Bredesen said he supports “reasonable restrictions” on firearms, and, as he did on other occasions during the debate, took a bipartisan approach. “Republicans and Democrats both own weapons,” he said. “I do not think this is a partisan issue.”

Asked if they would support raising the eligibility age for Social Security benefits above 67, Bredesen said, with another nod toward bipartisanship, he would prefer to slowly raise Social Security taxes as Ronald Reagan did. Blackburn said seniors need to be assured their benefits will stay in place, then pivoted to attack a statement by bredesen that the Affordable Care Act was Obama’s signature accomplishment.

One puzzling moment during the debate came when the candidates were asked about President Donald Trump’s proposal to establish a “space force” as a fifth branch of the military. Blackburn responded by talking about cyber warfare. Bredesen said, “I would like to know a lot more about the space force before I sign onto it,” adding that he wouldn’t want to duplicate the Air Force’s efforts.

On immigration, Bredesen said he opposes Trump’s zero tolerance policy that has led to family separations. “I think it was a stain on our country” that “amounts to child abuse,” he said.

Bredesen also asserted a strong belief in protecting the nation’s border, but said there are more effective ways, such as high-tech surveillance systems and drones, than building a border wall. “I think the wall is political theater,” he said.

Blackburn said that while no one wants to see families separated, zero tolerance has slowed the flow of drugs, human trafficking and illegal border crossings. “Walls work,” she stated. “Just ask Israel.”

Both gave the senator they hope to replace, Republican Bob Corker, a grade of A during his time in the Senate. Once again making a bipartisan gesture, Bredesen said Corker was “enormously helpful” while the state was recruiting Volkswagen to Chattanooga. “What I admired about him was doing his homework.”

Blackburn said she enjoyed working with Corker, who clashed with Trump on more than one occasion and decided not to run for re-election, and will continue working with him on stopping sex trafficking during his remaining days in office. She said she wanted to keep Corker’s desk on the Republican side of the aisle.

After the debate, the candidates took turns speaking to reporters in the Baker Center rotunda.

Speaking first, Bredesen yet again played down partisanship, assailing the culture of “tribalism” that he said has taken over Washington. Though many have characterized the Tennessee race as a key to control of the Senate, Bredesen isn’t an optimistic partisan. “I think the chances of my party being in the majority are minuscule.”

When it was Blackburn’s turn to speak, the four-term congresswoman hit her key debate talking points, but when asked about tariffs broke with the Trump administration. She said she’s raised objections with the secretary of Commerce, White House aides and the president. “We’ve got 800,000 jobs in this state that are connected to imports.”

The debate was the last scheduled between the two Senate candidates. Voters will decide which approach they prefer during the early voting period, which runs Oct. 17 through Nov. 1., and on Election Day, Nov. 6.