Ex-governors test whether civil discourse is possible – or productive

Washington Post photo by Jabin
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam listens as President Donald Trump addresses members of the National Governors Association in the State Dining Room of the White House in 2018.

Watching television news after 7 p.m. on almost any night, Bill Haslam says, is “unbearable, or at least it is for me. Because it’s just totally, ‘I’m trying to get you to be as outraged as you can about the things that I already know that you’re outraged about.'”

Haslam is like many Americans who are exhausted after half a dozen years of nonstop political conflict and news cycles that bleed from one into another and another. Unlike most Americans, Haslam and his friend Phil Bredesen are trying to offer some counterprogramming.

Haslam is a Republican who served as governor of Tennessee from 2011 to 2019. Bredesen is a Democrat who served for the eight years preceding Haslam’s tenure. Both are also former mayors in Tennessee – Haslam in Knoxville and Bredesen in Nashville – and both come from a business background.

Their politics are different, though as a conservative Democrat, Bredesen isn’t always all that far away from the moderately conservative (in today’s GOP) Haslam. By temperament they are temperate; their political style is oriented toward finding solutions rather than scoring points for cable television. Each has had some difficulty adjusting to the current state of their respective parties.

Neither Haslam nor Bredesen is a shouter, so they have come together not to shout but to talk – to talk not about the latest outrage that has caused the Twittersphere to light up but about some real issues and whether it’s possible to find real common ground in this divided nation.

They have launched a podcast called “You Might Be Right”; that’s a reference to something another Tennessee politician, former Republican senator Howard Baker, said to remind his fellow partisans that the other person might be right some of the time. The podcast is housed at the Howard H. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee.

The world is awash in podcasts, and the Haslam-Bredesen experiment in civil discourse echoes discussions that can be found in many places around the country, though often in places where people tend to agree with one another and less often across the barricades of what constitutes daily political life.

Their expectations are understandably modest. They are beginning with what they call a test flight, a series of conversations with pairs of guests, after which they will review and tweak. They have put off conversations about some of the most difficult topics – abortion or the teaching of America’s history of slavery and racism – until a second season.

A bigger challenge, perhaps, is whether these kinds of forums and formats are capable of producing more than just civil discussion. Generating understanding of opposing viewpoints is one thing. Reaching beyond easy compromise or lowest-common-denominator agreement to generate fresh and unorthodox thinking about issues that have been debated forever is another.

Right now they are hoping simply to create both a model for civilized debate aimed at finding some agreement for solving public policy problems and some encouragement for others in the public arena to turn conversation into, say, legislation.

“There are certainly plenty of people in politics for whom it’s all about. ‘I just need to keep exciting my base and stay elected,’ ” Bredesen said. “I also believe there’s a lot of people in politics today who genuinely want to find some common ground and give some progress on some of these difficult issues. It’s more a matter of getting the camel’s nose under the tent here.”

The two governors talked with The Post about their hopes for the project, a day after they had recorded a session that featured two former Republican senators from Tennessee, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, who debated (or at least discussed) their opposing views about the Senate filibuster. Alexander remains a defender, but Corker now sees a need to reform it, believing, Haslam said, that the Senate is so hamstrung that even decisions made on 51-49 votes are better than doing nothing.

Bredesen has been out of office now for almost more than a decade. He said one change he has seen, drawing from his experience as both a mayor and governor, is that state and local issues that once were seen as just that and therefore more disconnected from national debates have become increasingly nationalized. Whether issues of education or even local election campaigns, he said, “those issues have gotten much more tied up with this national positioning” by the two major parties.

For Haslam the biggest differences between when he was first running for governor and today is the pernicious influence of social media’s growth and influence, a common diagnosis. “We all know you don’t get likes and retweets by saying something that’s not critical or not that inflammatory,” he said. “People figured out the more inflammatory I am, the more I get retweeted, the more I get liked. And I honestly think that has dramatically changed politics.” Few would disagree.

Bredesen, who governed as a Democrat in a region of the country that was becoming more conservative and staunchly Republican, was often at odds with his own party while in office. He said the Democrats have “moved so far to the left” nationally that “you have to just carefully insulate yourself” to survive. He tried to do just that when he ran for the Senate in 2018. It didn’t work. He lost by double digits to now-Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R).

Haslam was the first Republican governor to have Republican majorities in the legislature. However, it wasn’t always an easy relationship, with legislators sometimes further to the right than the governor. “We’ve lost some of the benefit in Tennessee that we had when you had two strong parties that were debating and arguing with each other and when you had to win two elections, not just one,” he said. “Ultimately, I’m a proud Republican, but it does change when the only thing you have to worry about is your primary.”

Bredesen has long lived in Tennessee but grew up in Upstate New York. Both places today, he said, are part of Trump country. “I just know a lot of people who find that attractive,” he said. “And when you peel it back, it is almost a cultural phenomenon of people feeling that government has not served them and hasn’t solved problems. And their response to it is – it’s almost a bomb-throwing response. But I think there’s enormous frustration among reasonable people that problems are not being solved in a way that benefits them.”

The podcast that Bredesen and Haslam are starting could easily be drowned out by that which draws the most attention in politics today, the noise of a divided electorate, the hostility that is now in the open, as well as genuine concerns about the turmoil caused by former president Donald Trump and related threats to democracy. The two ex-governors want to focus on issues that divide people but that still might be subject to broader consensus than cable TV debates might suggest.

But they are realists. “I guess we’re under no illusions that we’re going to solve all the country’s problems in our podcast,” Haslam said. “But I’d say this, and I think at the heart of a lot of the issues you talked about is this incredible passion really on both sides of the country. And I think that passion is ignited a lot by folks who feel like, you know, I have to fight about this, and don’t really understand what’s the other side of the argument.”