Last Thursday night, Bill Haslam and Mike McWherter appeared onstage at the University of Tennessee for the second of three planned gubernatorial debates. Optimistic types might have hoped for a serious and pointed discussion of the challenges facing the state in coming years, with competing ideas and well-thought-out critiques of each other’s plans. Or, alternatively, for a talent show, with each candidate showcasing some of their little-known abilities. It would have been pleasant to discover that McWherter is a fine baritone, or that Haslam can recite the entire Rime of the Ancient Mariner. As it turned out, there was some attempted magic—both candidates tried to make difficult questions disappear, and there were promises of economic rabbits to be pulled from job-creating hats (or was it the other way ’round?)—but the prestidigitation on display was mostly of the finger-pointing variety.
What follows is, if not quite a transcript of the event, a faithful record of sorts.
MODERATOR: Hello and welcome to tonight’s debate between two men whose names you know mostly because of their fathers. One of them gets to be governor, and we’re all pretty sure it’s the Republican one because it’s their turn this year, but it is important to maintain the appearance of a functioning democracy. So we have assembled a panel of experts to ask them questions. We have also invited questions from a bunch of non-experts, which we will play for you on a very large video screen, for no particular reason except that, you know, it’s kind of cool. Plus we’re donating an hour of airtime to this thing, and God knows we need to give people more to look at than these guys. Kidding, I’m kidding. Not really, but I am. Not.
Anyway, let’s start with some opening statements. First we go to the awkward moon-faced guy with the stiff-limbed posture and, I’m sorry, but I have to say it, the pocky skin that is not being done any favors by these lights.
MIKE McWHERTER: Speaking of opening statements, I would like a certain someone running for governor to be a little more open about his financial statements. What’s he hiding in there? TARP money? Roman Polanski? All I’m saying is, it could be anything. Also, I would like to mention my one idea, which I will be repeating over and over again: tax breaks for job creation.
MODERATOR: Okay, and now over to the fellow with the gee-whillikers grin and the rhetorical style that, hometown folks can’t help but notice, has become increasingly slick and “politician”-like over the course of this campaign.
BILL HASLAM: Problems. Tennessee has problems. We need to be serious about them. And elect people who are serious about solving the problems, which are serious. We need serious solutions to our problems.
QUESTION: What about unemployment in rural areas?
BH: Yes. That is one of our problems. That we need a solution to.
MM: Tax breaks for job creation.
QUESTION: Isn’t it awesome that we keep electing rich guys who don’t even need a salary? That saves, like, 1/10,000th of 1 percent of the state budget right there.
MM: It is awesome to be rich. But we should not discriminate against people who are not rich. It’s okay to lend yourself a million bucks to scare other people out of the race, but that doesn’t mean those other people wouldn’t be good governors if only they had a million dollars.
BH: True. Public office should be open to anyone who can afford to go up against a guy with a personal fortune of undisclosed but clearly vast dimensions.
QUESTION: What about this McWherter ad linking Pilot Oil to Hugo Chavez?
MM: Look, I’m not saying Bill Haslam is a left-wing Latin American strongman. I’m just saying, let’s look at their pictures close together, maybe while you have the sound down or you’re not paying much attention.
BH: Jeez, Hugo Chavez is the least of it. We buy oil from all kinds of terrible people. Really awful. You should just see them. Yeah. But. Tennessee has serious problems.
QUESTION: How are you going to cut the budget and not screw over higher education?
BH: Oh, higher education is totally getting screwed.
MM: We need to sell more lottery tickets. And not go to college so much.
QUESTION: What about OBAMACARE!?!
MM: Whatever Phil Bredesen said about it. And what Bob Corker said, too.
BH: Whatever Lamar Alexander said about it.
QUESTION: Why don’t we have more movies filming here?
BH: I love movies. But we don’t need to spend a bunch of money just to bring Keira Knightley here.
MM: I would definitely spend money to bring Keira Knightley here.
QUESTION: Because Tennessee teachers are not already poorly paid enough, should we take away teacher tenure?
MM: I know I don’t actually act like a “Democrat,” per se, most of the time. But c’mon. Tenure? We keep tenure.
BH: This is one of those issues people talk about, yes.
QUESTION: What about West Tennessee?
BH: It sure is flat. When you to sell your state to developers, it’s great to have lots of product in your bucket. I want to sell that great, flat product. In my bucket.
MM: My state senator is from West Tennessee.
QUESTION: Can we have passenger trains?
MM: I love trains. You love trains. We all love trains! But, no.
BH: Choo-choo! Yeah, no.
QUESTION: Do you like Mike McWherter’s one idea, about tax breaks for job creation?
BH: Not so much.
MM: Of course! It’s my one idea!
QUESTION: Will you drop the sales tax on food?
BH: Nope. If we’re not gonna tax rich folks’ income—and we’re not, I guarantee you—then we gotta tax poor folks’ groceries. Sorry.
MM: I’m going to pretend that I would think about doing this, even though we all know nobody’s really going to.
QUESTION: Can we really make the University of Tennessee a top 25 research university?
MM: I am very concerned about the large-animal vet program. Think of our giraffes!
BH: Oh yeah. Sure. I mean, if you can do it with less money than you’re getting now. Because like I said, higher education is probably screwed.
QUESTION: Can we have medical marijuana?
BH: Shut up you hippie.
MM: There are lots of other drugs that can deliver the same relief. If you know what I mean.
QUESTION: Should there be a new Department of Aging?
MM: Tennessee has a lot of old people. My dad, for example. Sorry, Dad, but you’re really old.
BH: My dad rode his bike here. Hi, Dad!
QUESTION: Could you both say some inspiring things about America being a nation of immigrants but also sort of talk tough about illegal immigration, without promising anything specific?
MM: Happy to.
QUESTION: Are you guys just pawns for your fathers?
MM: Like I said, Dad’s really old. I mean, really. Can barely feed himself these days.
BH: Dad has only asked me for one thing during my time as mayor. And I said, “No.” Do you know what a kick I got out of that?
QUESTION: What about tort reform?
MM: Let’s not cut off victims’ legs. I mean, rights. Let’s not cut off victims’ rights.
BH: But if they cut off the wrong leg, you know, they do great things with prosthetics these days.
MODERATOR: Time for closing comments.
MM: Tax cuts for job creation. And what’s in those financial statements, hmmmm? Vote for me.
BH: Tennessee has problems. Serious problems. And those problems will get even worse if we decide to pack up Pilot and take it somewhere else. So watch it, bub. Vote for me.