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Phil Bredesen made a successful governor for one mind-blowing reason: He did just what he said

The Governor: No Tax, No Services ... No Problem!


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A few weeks ago, John Wolfe, failed candidate for Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District, bought a newspaper ad asking voters: "How did I lose to a debt collector who was born in New York?"

Ha! Good one, Mr. Wolfe! Or it would be a good one, if this were 1976. But we're all politically growed up here in the Volunteer State. Heck, in case you didn't notice — and it seems you didn't — a while back Tennesseans made a city slicker named Phil Bredesen their governor. Never mind that Bredesen was a damn Yankee who made tens of millions of dollars running a health insurance company. Like you, he was a Democrat. Also like you, he ran in a Republican election cycle.

Unlike you, however, he actually won.

It was really quite the accomplishment: Bredesen managed to defeat Republican Van Hilleary in Tennessee — a state which just two years before single-handedly cost erstwhile favorite-son Democrat Al Gore the presidency. But a little context is useful. This came, as you'll remember, after four years of drama on Capitol Hill arising from a Republican governor trying to push an income tax down the throat of a reluctant electorate.

In 2002, Tennessee voters had three essential beliefs. No. 1: The state budget was screwed up and they were sick of hearing about it. No. 2: It seemed to have something to do with TennCare. No. 3: They did not want a state income tax to "fix" the problem. Both Bredesen and Hilleary understood these things. Nevertheless, there was the sense even among some Republican voters that whatever Hilleary's ideological purity might have been, only Bredesen had the chops to actually do what needed to be done.

And, yea, verily, upon Phil Bredesen's inauguration, all of these things came to pass. The budget fights disappeared from the headlines. TennCare was tamed. And the income-tax genie retreated into its bottle, never to be heard from again. Little wonder, then, that four years later Bredesen was re-elected almost by approbation, winning even staunchly Republican Williamson County, the home base of his GOP opponent.

Sure, a few folks had their nitpicks with Uncle Phil. Those on his party's left were disappointed with his TennCare reforms and have never been overly comfortable with his quasi-Republican economic outlook. And — naturally — there were diehard Republicans who tried to pick fights with him over relatively minor things. (Thankfully, the state somehow managed to survive the Great Governor's Mansion Ballroom "Bunker" Crisis of 2007.)

Everyone else — which is to say, people who don't live, breathe and excrete politics, which is to say, sane people — liked him just fine, thank you very much, for no other reason, really, than that he seemed to know what the hell he was doing.

In one of his recent exit interviews, Bredesen summed up his governing philosophy this way: "As long as you're willing to tell people there are certain things you can't do — you can't have Massachusetts services and Tennessee taxes ... [then there's an understanding] that Tennessee's future lies more in being a low-tax state and accepting the level of services that implies."

Put another way: If you want a lot of government goodies, you've got to pay for them. If you want low taxes instead, you're not going to get a lot of government goodies. But you can't have both low taxes and a lot of government goodies. You have to pick one or the other. End of story.

Bredesen got knocked around for this by a few folks, including the estimable Jeff Woods, and I will grant that it's not the most stirring thing you'll ever hear a politician say. (Let's face it: You will never find a copy of Quotations from Chairman Phil on anyone's bookshelf.) But what it lacks in lofty rhetoric, it makes up for in simple, everyday common sense — and that's an exceedingly rare commodity among members of the political class.

To call Phil Bredesen boring is to be redundant. He never did really interesting things other governors like to do, such as hanging out with call girls (Eliot Spitzer — New York), wandering off to Argentina to hang out with his mistress (Mark Sanford — South Carolina), taking shameless self-promotion to dizzying heights (Sarah Palin — Alaska) or just being a general sleazeball (Rod Blagojevich — Illinois). All Phil Bredesen did in office was what the voters elected him to do.

Some people may find that uninspiring. But I would suggest that if so, they vastly underestimate how hard this is to accomplish in actual practice, once special interests from the right, left, up, down and center all try getting their mitts into you. Governor-elect Bill Haslam, a Bredesen wannabe — a term we intend as a compliment — will find out just how hard just a couple of weeks from now.

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