Even as the nation's two major political parties, on the eve of their quadrennial confrontation, each struggle on a national scale with the task of redefinition, so do the same two parties in Tennessee.
In the nation at large, Democrats are still (technically) in the act of choosing between two would-be exemplars — one, Hillary Clinton, a seasoned and well-known figure touting the values of diversity and equal opportunity; the other, Bernie Sanders, a self-defined Democratic socialist focusing on the need for a "political revolution" to moderate the economic inequalities of a system rigged to benefit the wealthy.
Here and there, the differences between those two candidates (who, it should be said, have much in common) is seen clearly. In that sense, the Democrats are lucky. The Republicans have, in the course of primary races that were both numerous and confusing, found their choice ready-made — in Donald J. Trump, a wildly successful Manhattan real estate billionaire and a man whose views and attitudes toward most policy matters are, for better or for worse, vague and ever-fluctuating, clearly subordinate to the dictates of an undeniably unique personality.
The two state parties have, both within the last week, just concluded their annual banquets in Tennessee, events which are meant to define them to their respective constituencies. Paradoxically, each of the Tennessee parties veered in a rhetorical direction counter to that of the national parties they represent.
The Democrats held their annual Jackson Day Dinner in Nashville, Saturday before last, and their keynoter, the well-known consultant James Carville, made no mystery about who was likely to emerge from the ongoing Clinton-Sanders contest.
Recounting for the party faithful at the state capital's impressive new Music City Center a public encounter he had just had with a GOP opposite number of sorts, Karl Rove, Carville related how he teased Rove with the statement, "I believe the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party has the experience, the temperament, and the judgment to be president of the United States from Day One" (clearly a description of former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State Clinton) and followed that up with a challenge: "Karl, tell us about the Republican nominee." In Carville's telling, anyhow, Rove could not respond in kind, but merely sputtered out the familiar attack phrases which Republicans habitually aim at candidate Clinton — FBI investigation, emails, Benghazi, etc.
The Republicans had gotten themselves "stuck" with Trump, a political anomaly, as a direct consequence of their having misled their basic constituency for a generation, Carville said, mentioning such notions as that President Obama was born in Kenya, that the planet Earth dated back only 5,000 years, that there was no such thing as global warming, that there had been weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that giving millionaires tax cuts would balance the budget.
"When people rise up and start believing all this nuttiness, why are you surprised? Let them believe whatever they want to. And anything Trump says, they believe it because they've been conditioned to believe it."
Carville proclaimed that "our diversity is our strength." He expressed pride that "my party nominated the first African-American candidate for president and will nominate the first woman." He followed that with another dig at the GOP: "And no, you don't get credit for Sarah Palin. Sorry."
Carville's de facto celebration of Clinton, his party's still unchosen but likely nominee, contrasted with the Tennessee Republicans' mum's-the-word approach, at their annual Statesman's Dinner at the selfsame Music City Center, this past Friday, toward Trump, a candidate whose nomination is virtually signed, sealed, and delivered already.
Tellingly, in view of Carville's apotheosis of Clinton, the Republicans' choice of a keynoter was another woman, Governor Nikki Haley of South Carolina, an unmistakably conservative office-holder but one who, in her own way, as the daughter of Indian immigrants, also stands for diversity, and who, in the past year, has made headlines by a) removing the Confederate flag from its former place of honor at her state Capitol building, and b) refusing, so far, to endorse Trump.
And, though he was the elephant in that room as in the nation's media, Trump was roundly ignored in the evening's rhetoric. The late U.S. Senator Fred Thompson was honored with due praise, as were the two living GOP Senators, Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, as was Governor Bill Haslam and the retiring Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, and as were numerous exemplars of the party's legislative super-majority and command of the state's congressional delegation.
Though he surely had support here and there in the room, Trump remained at best an X factor, an unknown on the other side of whom, chronologically, were such future-tense bench hopes as Haley.
Though she did not refer to the fact, keynoter Haley was the avowed target, outside the arena, of protesters, garbed in Confederate gray and waving rebel battle flags to demonstrate their outrage at her apostasy. The Republican brass inside surely had to be pleased by this semiotic hint that — on this matter, anyhow — they were on the right side of history.
Whatever its fate in the nation at large ("We're looking at a 162-year-old political party literally cracking up right in front of us," Carville said), the GOP seems destined to remain the ruling force in Tennessee for some time to come, though the Democrats had scored a coup of sorts by giving one of their major honors, the Anne Dallas Dudley Political Courage Award, to a couple who had distinguished themselves by fighting hard on behalf of Insure Tennessee, a Medicaid expansion plan proposed by Republican Governor Haslam but so far rejected by his party mates in the General Assembly.
For all their different directions — the Tennessee GOP still hewing to its historic distrust of social programs and ameliorist government in general, their Democratic counterparts continuing to see themselves as tribunes of the powerless — there are points of contact in the political middle. If the GOP members of the Tennessee General Assembly should, post-presidential-election, see fit finally to humor Haslam on the health-care matter, it will be through the medium of a task force appointed by Republican House Speaker Beth Harwell, whose power moves will doubtless fill some of the vacuum left by Ramsey's departure.
Harwell, who is rumored to have gubernatorial ambitions, may, in fact, become the face of the Tennessee Republican Party in much the way that Tennessee Democratic Party chair Mary Mancini (whose GOP opposite number is Ryan Haynes, a male genotype) has become that of her party.
The Tennessee GOP boasts a fair number of women in office, although, truth is, it is miles behind the Tennessee Democratic Party in forms of diversity having to do with race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Still, there is a political middle, and, with any luck at all, it may get filled up at some point in the respective reconstructions just now beginning to occur in the two major political parties.
There are signs of changes in both, locally as well as nationally. The GOP's dominant business-minded faction is under challenge from the very uprooted populists it has seduced away from the Democrats, while the Clinton/Sanders yin-yang will play out for years — a difficult wrangle but, in the end, a necessary one.