Knoxville may be the nexus of the universe, but not everyone knows it yet. In "The Hill to the Hills," Frank Carlson will take a monthly look at national affairs as they relate to East Tennessee, pointing out what lessons we can take from Washington and what lessons Washington could take from us.
Carlson is a Knoxville native now living and working outside Washington D.C. He's had articles published by The Tennessean, Politico, The Middle East Times, United Press International and The Online Newshour. He recently earned a masters degree in business reporting from Northwestern University, and in 2008 completed a Carnegie-Knight fellowship. He now freelances in his spare time.
Since the morning of November 5, a great deal of ink, pixels, and breath have been expended over one question: "Whither the Republican Party?"
The election last November may have midwifed this question, or perhaps just its urgency, but it's been gestating since at least the 2006 midterm defeat, and probably longer. And the events of 2009 so far haven't helped: over Republican objections, children's health care was expanded, the stimulus bill was passed, and the line between what's public and private continues to blur. Then there are the self-inflicted wounds: GOP chairman Michael Steele's many gaffes, Rush Limbaugh's incitements, and Gov. Bobby Jindal's uproarious impression of an 8th-grader running for student council in his response to President Obama's Congressional address.
Indeed, it's easy to see why many minds are working feverishly to lead the party out of the great desert of political marginalization and into the promised land of ideological overreach.
But perhaps the answer is already here. And perhaps it resides in the foothills of East Tennessee.
Consider: East Tennessee's national representation is unanimously Republican. In the House, Phil Roe, John Duncan Jr., and Zach Wamp serve as East Tennessee's representatives, together comprising three of the four Republican House members from the state. In the Senate, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, two Republicans raised in East Tennessee, represent the state's broad interests. When the nation swung for Obama in 2008, East Tennessee swung in the opposite direction.
So how has the GOP managed to keep East Tennessee under Republican lock and key while the rest of the state, and indeed much of the country, trended blue? Is East Tennessee so different? Or is the region's GOP?
To answer those questions, it's helpful to take look at Rep. Zach Wamp, who speaks for Tennessee's third district, just west of Knoxville. A few weeks ago, Wamp decided to go on national television to say that many of the 46 million Americans who don't have health care don't really want it (his reasoning being they'd rather spend their money on something else). He angrily voiced his disgust for the movement now underway to extend health care through government programs to those without.
"This literally is a fast march towards socialism," he told MSNBC while standing in front of the Capital, "where the government is bigger than the private sector in our country." Well, to be accurate, a "literal" march towards socialism would involve marchers, marching. Presumably in the direction of Western Europe. But summoning the image of marching hordes and militant overthrow does do wonders for inciting fear and dashing debate.
The TV appearance gave Wamp some national exposure ahead of his bid for the governor's mansion and those many fund-raisers he'll be holding around the state. But Wamp's words and convictions are greatly undermined by the fact that much of the wealth and jobs that flow into his district come from jobs and contracts at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (which just received $71.2 million in a "first installment" of stimulus funds), tourism to the national park system, and power production from TVA. And this is the genius of East Tennessee's Republican Party: with its mouth it spews vitriolic platitudes about not taking government money, while with its hands it reaches deeper into Uncle Sam's pockets. And it's okay with that.
Naysayers like Wamp, Corker, Duncan, and Alexander are in the enviable position of having it both ways on things like the stimulus bill. They can vote "no" on it (they all did) knowing that the overwhelming Democratic Congressional majority would guarantee its passage. Then they can reap the windfall of that new employment in their districts.
Somehow, small-government conservatives have learned to live with the monsters of New Deal "socialism" like TVA because doing otherwise would mean drastic change for a people who don't seem to want it, regardless of their stated preferences for the size and shape of government. Even Ronald Reagan learned this lesson.
The changes occurring now have been brewing for decades, and the GOP should stop pretending or wishing it were 1981, for their own sake and for the country's. There will be waste, neglect, and outright fraud. Fighting to moderate those changes and improve them will be a valuable service only a minority can truly provide, and for this Republicans are needed.
So call it apostasy. Call it abnegation. Call it whatever you want. Wring your hands and rub your eyes and bemoan the folly a world that does not bend to your beliefs. But Republicans, choose your future. Choose life.
But why would you want to do a thing like that?