In one of the few memorable moments of this governor's race, Zach Wamp dissed Bill Haslam by comparing him to wimpy, wide-eyed Bobby Ewing in the old Dallas soap opera. He meant to paint Haslam as an amiable doofus incapable of leadership, but there's a better analogy from late '70s pop culture: Haslam is Chance the gardener, aka Chauncey Gardiner, in the classic Peter Sellers movie Being There.
A simpleton, Chance achieves celebrity status in this comic fable when the world mistakes his shallow remarks for wisdom. Which is not to say that Haslam is an idiot — far from it. But like Chance, he is a blank slate. On the Haslam canvas in this election, voters are writing their own impressions based on their feelings about what he's saying or doing in the media.
Since Haslam hasn't actually issued many specifics in the long 18 months of this campaign, his beauty as a potential governor is entirely in the eyes of his beholders.
From the beginning, Haslam's two underfunded yet feisty rivals in the Aug. 5 GOP primary have been gnawing on his leg. Zach Wamp and Ron Ramsey are hitting him as a price-gouging, soft-on-guns-and-taxes oil tycoon and daddy's boy who's buying the governor's office and selling himself like a lottery ticket at a Pilot gas station.
All the while, Haslam has remained unfazed and preternaturally calm — also eerily like Chance — as if oblivious to his lambasting. This reached new intensity when Wamp unleashed TV attack ads to coincide with the start of early voting two weeks ago.
"It's a lot like running a marathon," the blissful Haslam jokes about this campaign, "but a marathon where people are throwing stuff at you for the last two miles."
With Tea Parties raging all over the state, it would seem like the perfect year for a movement conservative just like one of his opponents to finally break through and win a statewide election in Tennessee. Yet Haslam — who may (or may not) be another Republican establishment moderate in the mold of Bill Frist, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker — has built a double-digit lead in the polls with a never-ending series of fluffy TV ads. He has leveraged his enormous personal wealth to shake loose contributions to pay for the airtime — $4 million worth and counting — and lately he's started pouring his own cash into the race as well.
From his snoozy commercials, we have learned that Haslam is "the real deal," that he's "had good raisin' " by his family and that he's "genuine." The ads have revealed Haslam's love of beat-up sneakers and red umbrellas, chocolate pie, hard work, and nice-guy politics. One was devoted to a testimonial from a Memphis schoolteacher named Kempie Jenkins who swore Haslam "has a huge heart."
To the surprise of even the most jaded political observers, not a single ad has stated any specific policy proposal or offered any significant clue as to what this fill-in-the-blanks candidate might do as governor. Yet somehow, that hasn't seemed to count against the Knoxville mayor with voters and opinion makers.
The state's major newspapers are going gaga over Haslam. Like hopeful children watching the chimney on Christmas Eve, they choose to believe he'd make a great governor.
Damning Haslam with faint praise, the Knoxville News Sentinel called him "the most reasonable, civil and thoughtful" of the GOP candidates. The Tennessean is convinced for unknown reasons he will "represent the needs of all Tennesseans regardless of where they live, their economic standing and their personal beliefs." The Memphis Commercial Appeal sees in Haslam "a sense of perspective and a level of maturity that lift him above his competitors in the GOP race," adding that as a bonus he possesses a friendly "disposition" so he should get along well with others.
Isn't it great to know that in modern America, the seed of a rich guy running a relentlessly vapid campaign in which he absolutely refuses to take any positions at all — and sometimes appears totally out to lunch — still can win an election hands-down? Only in the Theater of the Absurd that is this governor's race could this candidate look like the Chosen One.
Haslam's play-it-safe campaign makes perfect political sense. Why take risks when you're ahead and your opponents lack the cash to catch up? But it's cynical nonetheless, telling us mainly that his cagey advisers are contemptuous of voters and that Haslam will submit to handling and packaging. About his principled beliefs, we remain foggy.
"I don't think Haslam's talked anything about any policy at this point. I really, really don't," Ramsey complained to reporters after a statewide TV debate two weeks ago.
Either Ramsey or Wamp, based on experience alone, would appear more likely to be nominated by their party. Rep. Wamp is a popular congressman from the Class of '94 — the year of Newt Gingrich and the Republican Revolution. As the speaker of the state Senate, Lt. Gov. Ramsey helped engineer the GOP takeover of the legislature two years ago and enjoys the support of a legion of state lawmakers. Haslam was an executive of unknown competence at his father Big Jim's Pilot Corp. until six years ago when he became mayor of Knoxville. Overseeing a city budget of only $165 million, that office isn't normally a political springboard.
"All he's said is, 'I'm a nice guy that sneaks a piece of pie every once in a while and knows some lady named Kempie in Memphis,' " the lieutenant governor said, his high-pitched hillbilly whine rising to new crescendos in exasperation.
"What's he ever said about anything about any issue about where he stands? Even tonight, it's the same way. 'Just trust me. I'm the right kind of guy.' Where does he stand on some of these issues? Where's he going to make these tough cuts he's talking about? Where is he really on Second Amendment rights? I don't think he knows a 12-gauge shotgun from a 20-gauge shotgun. And suddenly he says, 'I'm the real deal.' Well, that's not being the real deal to try to portray yourself as something you're not. If he didn't have the money to sell himself on television, he would not be in this race."
For his part, Wamp, in desperation, has been forced to sound at times like a lefty populist fighting evil Big Oil as represented by Pilot. Early in the campaign, Wamp came to the state Capitol to tell reporters he would go after "ordinary, tax-paying wagon-pulling families" — the wagon-pulling family vote being a new political demographic of which we were unaware.
"The question is, who is our standard bearer for Republicans?" Wamp asked. "If that standard bearer is someone who connects with ordinary taxpaying, wagon-pulling families, we got a chance to grow this party. If that is somebody who narrows our appeal to one of those elite special interests, we're going to go backwards. I'm a free enterpriser, and I'm not going to get into class war. But this is about who is our party going to nominate for the highest office in our state, and it ought to be somebody who can appeal to our working families and not a very narrow group of people."
"Are you going to start wearing a coonskin cap and walking around with a musket?" we asked the congressman.
"This is going to be a populist, firebrand, work-for-it kind of campaign," Wamp replied as he strode away. "And I gotta go."
It must gall Wamp that he has had to spend so much time answering skeptics who are certain Haslam will win this primary. The Mighty Mouse of Tennessee politics, Wamp is bursting with enthusiasm for his campaign and talks a mile a minute at every opportunity about all he would accomplish as Tennessee's chief executive. Even on the day he announced his candidacy, with country star John Rich by his side, all that reporters wanted to know was how Wamp could compete against Haslam's money.
In response, Wamp claimed variously (1) that he's a "heat-seeking missile" and a "red-blooded Tennessean;" (2) that he doesn't need so much money actually ("just enough and not the most"); and (3) regardless, he's riding a wave of populist Tea Party outrage to victory.
"This is about the people, folks," said Wamp, who talks rapid-fire like he's just drained a 12-pack of Red Bull. "I am red-blooded, Tennessee, middle-class conservative wanting to govern and lead our state to a new and better place."
Not that Wamp and Ramsey are talking much about important issues, either. Wamp obsesses over improving the reading skills of children and making them engage in physical exercise regularly, but he doesn't say how he might achieve those worthy goals. There's a lot of talk about deciding things later with blue-ribbon panels and summit meetings. Ramsey doesn't even pretend to care very much about education or health care — the two biggest state expenditures.
In an outrageous abdication of their responsibilities as candidates for public office, all three refuse to say how they might deal with the real catastrophe facing the state — the $1.5 billion crater that's about to gobble up services when federal stimulus money disappears next year. Tax increases of any kind are off the table, of course. So what will we do? It's like Nixon's secret plan to end the Vietnam War.
While they aren't talking about what matters, neither Wamp nor Ramsey could try harder to appeal to the Tea Party. They're courting the far right with an ardor that would shame Casanova. The disconnect is complete between the campaign's discourse and the state's depressing economic reality. All the candidates have to do is open their mouths and — whoops! — down the rabbit hole we plunge again.
Famously on the stump, Wamp has vowed repeatedly to meet Barack Obama at the border to stop the president from confiscating our weaponry, forcing us to buy health insurance or even thinking about denying our states' rights in as-yet unforeseen ways. Ominously, like a dark prophet of the Apocalypse, he predicts some states won't be worth living in once the socialist federal government finishes with us. Last week, he told political news blog Hotline on Call that states might have to think about seceding from the union if the next elections don't turn out their way. He once suggested that God anointed his hometown of Chattanooga and blessed the city with good-paying jobs because of its lack of abortion clinics.
Asked whether he thinks Obama is foreign-born, Ramsey says he doesn't know. Only two weeks ago, he called for a new state law requiring parents to attend school PTA meetings, inexplicably, as a way to beat back the liberal nanny state. At one debate, both Wamp and Ramsey dismissed global warming as a myth, offering this past winter's cold temperatures as their proof. Asked about Murfreesboro's planned Islamic community center, Ramsey said he's a big fan of freedom of religion — it's just that he's not sure "being a Muslim" is a religion. Maybe it's a way of life or a cult, he said in a youtube video that went viral on the internet this week.
Ramsey and Wamp all but make sweet, sweet love to guns on the campaign trail. Ramsey seems to think he can win merely by persuading enough of the state's 300,000 handgun carry permit holders to turn out for him. He boasts that he sponsored the law creating the state's handgun permit system as "the liberal press went berserk," and he insists none of these Second Amendment superheroes ever has caused a bit of trouble, even though there have been at least five killings by permit holders in the past two years alone.
At a Tea Party convention debate in May in Gatlinburg, Wamp disclosed that he sleeps with a gun next to his head. "Don't elect some sissy wannabe as your governor," he warned, reassuring those who worry our next state leader won't be man enough to stand up to North Carolina.
"It's time for tough people standing up to protect what we have left in this country," Wamp said, sticking out his chin like Clint Eastwood.
As his rivals have gone through the looking glass, Haslam has tried to contrast himself as the serious one — or at least the not-quite-as-nutty one. Audaciously, he touts his "campaign of ideas." But he has displayed a disappointing puzzlement on the issues from the moment he announced his candidacy. On his first statewide tour, he raised eyebrows by admitting he didn't know whether he favored amending the state constitution to strip away abortion rights — the much-ballyhooed top priority of the Republican legislative majority.
How did he feel about changing the way Tennessee picks judges, another hotly contested issue for decades in this state? He couldn't say. Could he offer his views on how to bolster tax revenue to fund an adequate level of state government services? Nope.
In another show of befuddlement, preserved for history on YouTube, Haslam struggled to answer simple questions about the use of state lottery proceeds and seemed not to know there are restrictions in the law about how that money may be spent.
What's worse, it was wrong to assume that he eventually would inform himself — or if he did ever actually figure out what he thinks, that he would tell voters his views. He did manage to memorize certain answers, and he repeats those constantly. In them, he describes the problems at length but doesn't offer solutions.
In one recent interview, Haslam sputtered while trying to name the one or two most important functions of the governor:
"The governor at the end of the day is the chief executive of the state. The state's a $28 billion, 47,000-employee organization, and we do everything from build roads, to educate kindergartners, to educate Ph.D students, to help folks with mental disabilities, to help veterans, to help foster children, when you think about all the different things, we patrol highways, when you think about all the different things the state does, we patrol highways, health care. It's a very complex organization. And the governor needs to have the ability to lead and to manage that complex organization and to manage, um, that complex large organization and have the experience to do it because it's not at all the same gift set as being a legislator."
Haslam's campaign has been so airy that aides tout as a great pronouncement his "Ten Guiding Principles for Conservative Fiscal Leadership." Among them: "Manage conservatively and spend less than you take in," and, "Hold the reins when times are good, prioritize when times are bad." Then there's our special favorite: "Be a faithful steward of taxpayer dollars."
A dead ringer for comic Dana Carvey, Haslam is wiry and twists his limbs into pretzels during interviews when he's concentrating especially hard on not answering questions.
At a Scene sit-down, we tried to pin down Haslam on something — anything! — and failed miserably. He's way craftier than he seems. He's for restricting abortion, cracking down on immigration, enforcing gun rights, and banning gay adoption — just to name a few right-wing causes — but personally he doesn't know exactly how to accomplish any of that and wouldn't lift a finger to help any legislator do it if he did know how:
Scene: Why would a social conservative vote for you? You seem to be trying to have it both ways. You're telling all the sort of liberals and moderates that you aren't going to push a social agenda, but you're telling the social conservatives, "I'm all for all this stuff."
Haslam: That's not true. I've been clear about what I believe. But if you're asking me what's a governor's primary role [note: we weren't], the budget is what I'm going to focus on as governor because those are the things I think are important. If the legislature wants to bring those [socially conservative] things up, I can't tell you I'm going to sign everything that they bring to me. I'm obviously going to evaluate everything on its own merits, but as governor I'm going to focus on those things that I think the governor should do.
So after he's finished focusing intently on the state budget, what exactly will he do to it? Well, he won't say. He says he'll figure it out once he's made a "top-to-bottom review" of the government. He does offer this kindergarten solution: He will do just as he's done as Knoxville's mayor, asking of each government function, "Should we be doing this in the first place? Are we doing it as effectively as possible?" Maybe this nickel-and-dime strategy saved the day in little Knoxville, but no one thinks it will put so much as a dent in the state's overwhelming difficulties.
Haslam may appeal to his party's moderates as well as independents and many Democrats. But hard-right conservatives are anguishing over his ascension. Correctly or incorrectly, they assume it's the right wing that he's trying to trick, not the rest of us. In a private meeting to try to allay his own fears, Lloyd Daugherty — one of the founders of the modern movement in this state as chairman of the Tennessee Conservative Union — asked Haslam to deny his own father, the aforementioned Big Jim, a moderate Republican powerbroker who once openly supported the state income tax.
"I met with Bill a couple of weeks ago," Daugherty says. "I told him then, 'You know, being a good Southern boy, before I put a bet down on a Kentucky Derby horse or bought a good coon dog, I want to know who sired it.' One of my main concerns with Bill Haslam is his father. He needs to convince me that he is independent from his father's way of thinking. Bill said, 'I'm my own man.' "
Daugherty and another right-wing hero, radio host Steve Gill, agree Haslam couldn't compete in this primary without (a) his mountain of cash and (b) hordes of gullible GOP voters who fall for the TV ads that all that money buys.
"It's really a matter of money," Gill says. "What's really been happening in Tennessee politics is that rich guys win. Forget ideology. Just good fundraising isn't going to get the job done if you're running against guys who get their money at the Anytime Teller Machine. So I don't know that it's a really a battle of ideology as it is a battle of checkbooks. If Wamp or Ramsey had an unlimited bank account, we'd have a different race."
Haslam almost universally is expected to roll to the Republican nomination next week and then skate past his hapless Democratic opponent, Mike McWherter, in November to become our 49th governor. Still, the undecided vote remains unusually high, if the polls are accurate. So among some voters at least, there remains this nagging, queasy feeling that they might have filled in the Haslam blanks incorrectly.
In an unintentionally revealing interview with David Fowler of the Christian conservative Family Action Council, Haslam gave this answer to the question: "What do you like least about politics?"
"I think it's this: Politics is often about the perception more than the reality. If I want to say 'David's blue,' I can throw blue paint on you all day long and pretty soon people will start thinking you're blue because somebody says that. Somebody says, 'David's a real bossy, selfish guy.' If I keep describing you that way in every conversation, pretty soon people start saying, 'Oh yeah, I've heard that about him.' Whereas the reality may be far different from that. That's easily to me the most frustrating part. The perception matters more than the reality, and the perception can be painted constantly by people who are opposed to you."
Haslam obviously meant that response to deflect the darts his critics are flinging at him. But it could just as accurately refer to Haslam's selling of himself. Deception of any kind is high on everyone's list of what they least like about politics. What would Haslam do as governor? How should we know?
Here's a scary thought: Haslam himself might be as clueless as anyone else.