Sunday, May 26, 2002

BREDESEN VS. NAIFEH: METHOD OR MADNESS?

BREDESEN VS. NAIFEH: METHOD OR MADNESS?

Posted By on Sun, May 26, 2002 at 4:00 AM

In case anybody thought Phil Bredesen‘s “repeal-an-income-tax” pledge of three weeks ago was incidental, accidental, or a sign of political foot-in-mouth disease, they should certainly know better after Wednesday.

Even as Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, surprise loser in an historic House flat-tax vote, was licking his wounds in a public press conference, the ex-Nashville mayor and current Democratic gubernatorial hopeful was having copies of his latest income-tax bashing circulated in Legislative Plaza.

Although the statement contained a grace note about the “good people” who disagreed with him, Bredesen concluded by saying, “The income tax came to a vote today, and it clearly failed. Now it’s time to move on. We need to focus on better managing state government, fixing the problems in TennCare, and growing the economy to address our long term budget problems.” GOP candidate Van Hilleary, who had made exhortatory phone calls to anti-tax legislators and called the income tax protest an example of "Americana," had made a similar statement somewhat earlier.

Inasmuch as Naifeh even then was suggesting he might try and try again to get his 4.5-pecent package enacted, Bredesen's newest statement was a clear shot across the bow, an even greater challenge to the Speaker than Bredesen’s previous seconding of Hilleary’s promise to repeal any such income-tax package that got passed in this session.

In the wake of that one-two punch, which had come as Naifeh first set out to build his 50-vote coalition, the Speaker had privately expressed his fury and let it be known publicly that he was not going to be taking Bredesen’s phone calls.

In such a context, Bredesen’s newest statement has to be read not only as a further repudiation of the income-tax concept, but as a purposeful distancing of himself from Naifeh and, for that matter, from the current legislative leadership of his party.

There is already speculation that the ultimate failure of the income-tax bill in this session might mean curtains for Naifeh as House leader (as it almost certainly does for Steve McDaniel, the Republicans’ leader and a flat-tax supporter); Bredesen’s posture can be interpreted as an attitude of “So-Be-It”-- if not something stronger.

During the fallout from his “repeal” statement, Bredesen had explained himself by saying he did not intend to let Hilleary, his likely fall opponent, make the income tax a focal issue in the governor’s race. He seems to be saying something stronger now -- that he does not intend to let the party which he hopes to lead into the future be tied to the carcass of a dead issue.

Two weeks ago, some high-ranking Democrats launched an anonymously attributed trial balloon, telling Bredesen, in effect, that he was weakening his credibility by seeming to be in a Pete-RePete relationship with Hilleary on the income tax and that there was a ceiling on how many times he could safely repeat that kind of misadventure.

Bredesen’s statement Wednesday can be taken as his answer to that message, as an affirmation that he knows what he’s doing and the consequences be damned.

Those who have talked to Bredesen in the wake of the income-tax vote and his response to it suggest that he is indeed aware that he might be, directly or indirectly, accelerating a shakeup in the legislative hierarchy, and, although the initial reaction to his Wednesday statement among Democrats -- especially those in the General Assembly -- was unfavorable, already some have begun to embrace -- or at least consider -- a newer thought: Maybe, just maybe, Bredesen is right. On the political scale, anyhow.

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