Obama Wants Bredesen? Really?

Health care advocates wonder how Bredesen fits in Obama's vision

The rumor began before last fall's election that Gov. Phil Bredesen would join the Obama administration. It didn't seem credible then and it hardly seems credible now. It was so incredible I refused to repeat it.

But you should remember that all rumors are true; except when they aren't. At this writing, a lot of credible sources say Bredesen is on the shortlist for Health and Human Services Secretary.

The question is: why?

When the rumor began it seemed like a story to fund-raise for Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey's effort to elect Republican senators. Ramsey would be the governor should Bredesen depart and with a Republican Senate and House (well, you know how that turned out) the GOP would have total control.

On the other hand, a lot of Democrats criticize Bredesen for telling Obama to write off Tennessee. The lack of a vigorous Obama campaign in the state drove down Democratic numbers and gave Republicans majorities in enough districts to take over the House. (Except, well, you know.)

Bredesen came into office as a veteran of the health care field; he made a fortune in it, and was elected in part to fix the TennCare program that was bleeding the state dry. We don't really know what revolutionary reforms Bredesen might have launched as governor. Constricted by federal court decrees and lawsuits by health care advocates, he scrapped his reform plan and merely lopped 170,000 to 200,000 people off the rolls.

Over time, Bredesen has reintroduced plans that added people back to the rolls, but he has not overcome the enmity of health care advocates. It will be interesting to see whether the Obama administration listens to the advocates for Bredesen or the social justice crowd, led by Tony Garr, urging cards and letters and e-mails to stop Bredesen from getting any sort of appointment.

Anyone trying to push through universal health care at the national level will need political smarts, credibility, and enormous patience. That's why Obama first turned to Tom Daschle to head HHS and his health care-reform effort. Daschle delivered senatorial endorsements early, giving Obama credibility against Hillary Clinton. He has political skills from being a Senate majority leader and a lobbyist. Bredesen not only didn't do anything to help Obama get elected, but he also has never worked in Washington. Daschle had every qualification other than being a person who pays his taxes.

You will recall that Bredesen came into office as a Democrat with Democrats in charge of the state senate and the state house. He did not have the patience or the political skills to unite the Legislature in a comprehensive TennCare reform plan. If you are a powerful governor with your party in control of the Legislature, and you can't run over Garr and Gordon Bonnyman, how can you be expected to take on the special interests to help pass comprehensive health care reform?

Bredesen got elected as a business guy who could fix the budget. He has never been known for his political skills. As Nashville mayor he often had strained relations with Metro Council, as he now has with the Legislature. As recently as last fall, Democratic legislators rejected his candidate for House Democratic leader in favor of state Rep. Gary Odom, a fellow who crossed swords with Bredesen when he was on Metro Council and Bredesen was mayor.

At this writing Bredesen does seem to be on the short list. Will he walk away in the middle of a budget crisis, leaving Ramsey to cope? Ramsey with no staff or commissioners, or stuck with Democrats who agree to stay on?

It would not be a very good legacy for Bredesen's two terms as governor. In fact, it would be pretty irresponsible. Bredesen has work to do as governor of Tennessee. And he has not demonstrated the ability to handle the job Obama wants done.

Doesn't mean he won't be named tomorrow, but one would still have to wonder why.