Tennessee diverged from the nation during the recent elections, turning its state Legislature over to Republicans for the first time in more than a century. Meanwhile, Democrats won the presidency and expanded control of Congress, triggering talk among Republicans about redefining the national party. The contrast will likely put Tennessee in the spotlight, but whether it leads the transformation or serves as a waning legacy of failure depends on what party leaders in Nashville do.
Our state faces similar challenges to those confronting Washington, D.C. A stalling economy has brought declining sales-tax revenues, and Gov. Bredesen is projecting an $800 million shortfall by the time next year's budget must be passed. Economic problems will likely increase demand for government services, with job losses and mortgage pressures forcing more Tennesseans to turn to the state for healthcare assistance and social services. Financial troubles drive up crime rates and divorce rates, putting greater burdens on law enforcement and the courts, so budget pressures are likely to be worse than the projected tax shortfalls.
Republicans typically respond to budget crunches by cutting spending, but the Tennessee budget has already been picked over several times. Vultures long ago gave way to maggots and beetles. Budget cutters won't find much nourishment, and this is where Republicans will be forced to redefine themselves.
If Republicans have a natural role, it is to cull Democratic excesses. They are at their best as a minority party working to restrain government, but when they take control, their inherent coziness with the wealthy quickly undermines that restraint. Private contractors feast on pork, appointees sabotage regulatory agencies, and lobbyists load up on loopholes.
Whatever problems we face, Republicans deny they exist or refuse to recognize any role for government in solving them. A big part of Barack Obama's appeal was that he did not merely offer a partisan sales pitch, but seemed genuinely focused on solutions. Healthcare costs have been an open sore on our economy for two decades, and the advance warning science provided on climate change has been fiddled away. Both problems have grown more urgent while Republicans obstructed efforts to address them, and the legacy of fiscal irresponsibility Bush saddled us with further complicates matters.
The nation is clearly ready for serious action, but is Tennessee? Can state Republicans turn their alleged superiority in market economics and business management toward creative solutions, or will they follow the slash-and-spend recipe of corporate raiders who cut jobs and raise bonuses?
Early indications are not encouraging. Lawmakers appear to be focused on gays and abortion, giddy with the chance to cram their morality into everyone's lives. The state party is a small-brained propaganda factory churning out more flubs than substance. Tim Burchett did the recording industry a favor that will cost the university several million for compliance. Fortunately, he wants to retreat to county government. State Republicans need someone to emerge with larger, not smaller visions.
Whispers about a state income tax have already started, but that seems highly unlikely with Republicans in charge, unless Bredesen decides to fall on his sword. The governor's national ambitions are plain, but blaming Obama for Democratic losses in Tennessee after advising him to not bother campaigning here was a bad misstep. If Tennessee's financial woes keep worsening, Bredesen might take a cushy ambassadorship and turn his office over to Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, dropping everything in Republican laps.
Then we could really see whether Republicans can forge solutions instead of just obstructing them. Can Republicans resurrect our state and their party along with it, or will we become a roadside carcass bleaching in the harsh light of ideological immutability?