Tennessee's Political Parties Have Too Much Unchecked Power

Ward Cammack's early departure from the governor's race is a bad sign for Tennesseans tired of partisanship

Ward Cammack may have been the best candidate in the race for governor, an experienced businessman with a coherent and balanced perspective. He dropped out last week in the face of dismal poll numbers. Clearly he was not a good candidate by any practical measure, but given the practice of partisan politics these days, are the practical measures any good?

Cammack was a Republican who grew disillusioned with "political rigidity," so he decided to run as a Democrat. He entered the race early in hopes of giving Democrats time to get to know him, but he found the same inflexibility there that drove him from the Republican party. With the two-party system having become a fixture in American politics, he had nowhere to turn.

Both parties placed their pettiness front and center last year, as Frank Cagle outlined in these pages last week. Former State Sen. Rosalind Kurita was stripped of her primary-election victory by Democratic party executives, and Republicans ejected House Speaker Kent Williams from the party after he conspired with Democrats to gain leadership of the State House. Political parties are not defined anywhere in the state or federal Constitution, and for this reason the courts refuse to interfere with party business.

The legislative branch has shown no such restraint, allowing public funding for primary elections and also instituting numerous arcane rules that divvy up committees and protect the two dominant parties from third-party incursions. Cagle argued that the parties need to remedy the situation, but I think we need checks and balances. If the legislature is making laws respecting party establishments, the judiciary must balance that power. The imbalance is depriving citizens of choices and opportunities.

In the contest for governor, Republican opponents of Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam are turning the primary into a test of party loyalty, turning Haslam's inclusive, moderate tenure against him. In a state that grades from deep red in the east to deep blue in the west, polarization seems counterproductive, but it is the sad reality of political discourse. Campaign donations are always the prime test of party loyalty, however, and Haslam passes that test with flying colors. He will likely survive the ideological challenge.

Cammack did not survive the challenge of raising funds as a Democrat. In the announcement of his withdrawal, he said "long-standing political alliances proved impenetrable and fund raising ground to a halt." His Democratic opponents already had ties to the party's big donors. The parties act as gatekeepers to power, and the main qualification for advancement is a person's willingness to scratch backs and affirm beliefs. An outsider like Cammack is doomed.

How many of us are insiders? Turnout in primaries is weak. Voters do not have to declare party affiliation in Tennessee, and more voters switch between parties than maintain loyalty. Partisan filtering of candidates ends up excluding at least two-thirds of citizens from any practical shot at winning an election. The excluded majority sits in the middle, concerned less with ideology than with practical solutions and satisfactory results. No wonder our biggest problems fester unresolved year after year.

Cammack built his economic platform by harmonizing the practical perspective of a businessman with the holistic view of statesman. He wanted Tennessee's economy to stop fighting against itself, sacrificing long-term value for short-term gain. He stressed "the urgency of aligning our assets with our opportunities," relying on farms and small businesses rather than foreign energy and global corporations. He knew that self-reliance means health and security, and he wanted to govern from the egalitarian, practical perspective that made America great.

Cammack's willingness to shuck off party labels was just what we needed. He forged a strong vision for Tennessee in the middle ground that respects both sides, but neither side had a place for him. If a moderate like Ward Cammack can't find a foothold in our political system, divisiveness may have conquered us. Our political parties have too much unchecked power.