EDITORIAL: On Democratic Purity 

As the eagerly attentive denizens of the planet's seven continents surely know by now, the Shelby County Democrats were able Monday night to enforce a ban against Republican officeholders at their annual Kennedy Day Dinner. There were, both literally and figuratively, no elephants in the room.

There were, however, some conspicuous elephants outside the room, and Governor Phil Bredesen, titular head of Tennessee Democrats, alluded to them in an aside to his keynote address. These were the disabled Tennesseans and their sympathizers who picketed the event from positions on the Central Avenue sidewalk outside the Holiday Inn where the dinner took place. In his speech, Bredesen gave these protesters against his TennCare cuts backhanded praise for exercising their constitutionally protected freedom of speech, just as -- or so he informed his Democratic audience -- he had given them a few minutes of his time before entering the hotel.

The governor's solicitude for the demonstrators was  given appropriate applause. But Bredesen might have merited greater praise had he dealt with the TennCare issue in some other way than by repeating his well-worn mantra that, to maintain the state's solvency, he had no other choice than to make the draconian series of cuts that left many of the seriously disabled protesters uninsurable.

We seem to recall that state senators Steve Cohen and Rosalind Kurita, both Democrats, had proposed increasing the state cigarette tax so that the resulting revenue might have seriously mitigated the scope of the TennCare reductions. The governor, up for reelection this year and an economy-minded administrator under any circumstances, chose not to support such a measure. More crucially, perhaps, Bredesen took an adamant stand against new taxes of any kind -- especially that bugaboo of the state's recent past, an income tax -- and boasted of  Tennessee as a "low-tax state."

It's true that Tennessee's rate of per-capita taxation is phenomenally low compared to the national average and to that of the great majority of states. The corollary is that Tennessee is a low-services state as well, and that's nothing much to brag about.

It should be noted that Bredesen spent much of his speech insisting that his fellow state Democrats marshal their energies this year toward the goal of electing 9th Distict congressman Harold Ford Jr. to the U.S. Senate -- the same Harold Ford Jr. who just voted, against the Democratic majority in Congress and along with House Republicans, to make permanent President Bush's giveaway tax cuts for the wealthy.

It is all well and good for the Democratic Party to safeguard the sanctity of its guest list on formal party occasions. We just wish the party -- and its spokespersons -- would be equally resolute in upholding Democratic traditions and policies that, once upon a time, benefited the most needy and deserving in our midst.


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