Capitol View Commentary: June 13, 2008 - NewsChannel5.com | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Capitol View Commentary: June 13, 2008

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CAPITOL VIEW

By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising

June 13, 2008

We've been told for months it was coming, and now, it is here.

Gasoline prices nationwide are at an average of $4 per gallon and rising. While prices here in Tennessee have been a tad lower than that, gradually we are seeing gas costs at the $4 level or higher in this area too, eating the life out of our economy, squeezing our pocketbooks and wrecking our budgets. How high will it go? Nobody knows. The latest government estimate is $4.15 a gallon. Others say it will be up to $5  a gallon later this summer. No one is predicting any price declines anytime soon. 

As the political campaigns for President are more and more focused on the old theme, "It's the Economy, Stupid," the issue most particularly in the spotlight is the price at the pump as well as rising energy costs overall and what can be done about it. That's why the candidates keep talking about it and why Congress continues to tie itself in knots trying to approve legislation to attack the problem.

So far, the only consensus is no consensus. There likely is no short-term or easy fix. America is no longer in control of all the world's markets (rising oil demand in China and India is playing a larger role) and there is no technology ready to come on line quickly that will change things even in a few years. New oil exploration might help some, but it doesn't come on line overnight either, and with a good bit of the rise in oil prices being driven by speculators and a weak dollar, we probably aren't going to produce ourselves out of this problem any more than we can conserve or tax our way to energy success, either.  

Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander keeps talking about creating a "Manhattan Project" to address our energy issues long-term and he's probably right. It will take the kind of money and sacrifice this country made to win the Second World War to solve this dilemma. But I would remind the Senator, who I think is something of a history buff, that when we undertook the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, almost no one except top government officials knew about it or had any idea how much money it was costing. Most importantly, Congress didn't debate it endlessly or vote it up or down.    

We should also remember that trying to address this issue, as important as it is (along with global warming), is pretty much futile in an election year. The temptation to play "gotcha" politics, or for competing special interests to put on the squeeze, is way too strong and often leads to legislative gridlock and failure.

And it's not just about gas prices. This is also occurring in legislation dealing with Medicare changes, and almost everything Congress is considering, including extending unemployment benefits and even the latest effort to continue to allow Tennesseans to deduct their state sales tax payments from their federal income tax returns. 

  We've probably already gotten everything we are going to get out of Washington this year, and that's the check that's either already been sent to you in the mail or is on its way to your mailbox (and then probably going on to your car's fuel tank or to the grocery store).

SOMEBODY FINALLY NOTICED

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has not made Tennessee one of the its key races for this November, seeming to give incumbent Republican Lamar Alexander something of a free pass.

But then somebody on the DSCC in Washington took notice and sent out a news release the other day bashing Alexander for his vote against the "tax extenders bill" which would have (among other things) "restored Tennesseans' ability to deduct their sales taxes from their federal returns. Alexander responded the bill had lots of other bad things for Tennesseans and wasn't worth voting for given its down side. Interestingly, though, his Tennessee colleague, Bob Corker, thought the tax bill was "fiscally responsible' and "could see no reason to oppose debate," so he voted unsuccessfully to bring it to the floor.

Regardless of this seeming disagreement among Tennessee's Senators, it is interesting to see the DSCC now understands there is a Senate race in Tennessee. But will the group put its money where its mouth is and provide financial resources to whichever Democratic candidate emerges from the August primary? Probably not, I'd guess. Even in a year where Democrats have more money than Republicans, there seem to be too many targets of opportunity for the Democrats in other states and either Mike Padgett or Bob Tuke will likely be left to fight it out with Alexander on his own.

So far, it's kind of a quiet race (a lack of money and name recognition will do that to a candidate's effort). Now don't misunderstand, both Democratic candidates are doing the best they can, given the resources and the late start they got. But contrast this with the last U.S. Senate primary race in 2006 on the GOP side. By this time in June, less than two months before the August elections and even less than that from when early voting starts, Bob Corker was already all over the TV air waves, ultimately grabbing a lead that his underfunded opponents could not make up. For now, both Democratic candidates are reduced to making whatever kind of political noise they can through personal appearances, endorsements (Padgett has just released a list of key supporters), walking across the state, and whatever earned media they can gin up through the mainstream media and the blogs as well as on the internet and through campaign e-mails.

Remember this when the next round of campaign fundraising disclosures are out in a few weeks. You can see how tough it is for these candidates to even compete against one another on a statewide basis, much less against the political war chest Senator Alexander is assembling for the fall.   

  

OBAMA

It's only been about a week since Hillary Clinton bowed out of the presidential race and already some polls indicate her endorsement of Barack Obama is keeping her supporters in the Democratic fold. According to latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released June 11, Obama holds a six-point lead nationally over the likely GOP nominee, Senator John McCain (47-41). That's up from a three-point margin in April (46-43).

The poll also found 61% of those who said they voted for Clinton in the primaries now say they will vote for Obama. But to indicate there's still lots of work to do for the Democrats, 19% of former Clinton voters say they will vote for McCain. That number will have to shrink still further if Obama wants to be assured of taking the oath of office next January 20.

The poll found that Obama leads McCain among African-Americans (83% to 7%), but it also shows him winning vs. the Arizona Senator among Hispanics (62%-28%), women (52%-33%), Catholics (47%-40%), independents (41%-36%) and even blue-collar workers (47%-42%), which is surprising given some recent primary performances by Obama. Of course, that was against Clinton, who has now endorsed him. It was not against McCain, who nevertheless can take some solace in his performance among white male voters, where he bests the Illinois Senator by 20 points (55-35). McCain also does well in the poll with white suburban women, prevailing 44% -38%. 

Here's another interesting stat from the poll. It shows Obama expands his lead over McCain to nine points if he adds Hillary Clinton to his ticket at vice president and McCain chooses former GOP rival Mitt Romney. It also shows 54% of those surveyed said they were looking for a president who would bring greater changes to current policies, even if that person is less experienced and tested. 42% said they preferred a more experienced and tested person become president, even if that meant fewer changes.

It's obviously very early, and the race will decided state by state by electoral votes, not the overall popular vote, but clearly this poll shows advantage Obama for now, although it remains a very competitive race.

But clearly there are dangers ahead for the soon-to-be Democratic nominee. He, like McCain from time to time, continues to have problems with his advisors and close associates. It happened for McCain with some of the former lobbyists who helped run his campaign. The latest for Obama came when one of those he entrusted with vetting potential vice presidential candidates had to step down after media questions were raised about his financial affairs (and the McCain campaign is stepping up attacks on another Obama VP vetter because of his ties to one of the last round of pardons issued by President Bill Clinton.     

Surrogate problems seem to be a hallmark of this campaign cycle and media and public sensitivity is so high on the matter (especially in a campaign that is all about change) that I suspect this will continue to be an issue all the way to November.

Meantime, the Obama camp has become so concerned about the numerous internet-and-media-fed rumors and e-mail campaigns launched against their candidate and his wife, that a specific web site has been launched to debunk the rumors.   It's at www.fightthesmears.com

Yet another example of how technology continues to change the strategies and political toolbox of the modern presidential campaign. But, in a way, this is almost as old as presidential politics itself. Recall your history and the election of 1828, when many scandalous rumors and charges were made against the main candidates, Andrew Jackson of Tennessee and incumbent president John Quincy Adams. How did both sides support their charges and counter their opponent attacks? By using the relatively new and popular communications vehicle of that day, they founded their own newspapers, using the penny press to spread their messages and defend their causes.

Speaking of the media, THE NEW YORK TIMES has a wonderful article by Jacques Steinberg published on June 12. It outlines the coverage plans of the TV networks and the cable news channels for the upcoming presidential conventions. Without going into a lot of details (read the article) let's just say you can likely find all the coverage you want or as little as you want. Even the parties are getting involved, according to the article, with the Democratic National Convention offering live, high-definition video of the convention on its web site, so you can choose "from a menu of camera angles" and decide "whether Barack Obama looks better from the right or the left" (that's camera angles we talking here, not where he is on the political spectrum) J

So, get the popcorn ready to pop. It's still a few months away, but along with the vice presidential choices, it's one of the few remaining big events set to occur before the fall campaign.

MISERY LOVES COMPANY

Two of Tennessee's Congressmen continue to deal with issues that won't seem to go away. And a potential future gubernatorial candidate has opposition from an interesting source.

Republican Congressman Marsha Blackburn, who's been bedeviled with repeated financial reporting errors by her campaign committee, has seen the issue resurface again with a liberal watchdog group filing a complaint with the Federal Election Commission on the matter and asking for an in-depth investigation.

Blackburn defends herself by saying she has self-reported all her problems and she claims this is an election tactic design targeted at "conservative women (who) are prime targets for Democrat attack."

But it's Blackburn's GOP primary opponent who continues to try to take advantage of her campaign finance issue. Tom Leatherwood says, "It's unfortunate that the incumbent continues to be in the headlines for her pattern of self-serving behavior."

But unless the next round of campaign finance disclosure shows Underwood with a lot more money than he had in his last report, he may be the one with the problem when they count the votes in August.

Meantime, on the other side of the aisle, Democratic Congressman Lincoln Davis is finding he is not the only member of his party in the House holding back from endorsing Senator Barack Obama, even though he is the apparent Democratic nominee for President. In an Associated Press story (6/12,) Ben Evans and Sam Hananel profile several House Democrats who aren't endorsing Obama because, as one congressman from Oklahoma (Dan Boren) put it: He's "the most liberal senator" in Congress. "We're much more conservative (and)...I've got to reflect my district," he adds (and get re-elected, I'll bet).

Now Congressman Davis has exactly said that. But I'll bet he's thought it, especially since Davis is also thinking about running for Governor in 2010.

Speaking of those looking to run for governor in two years, you'd think former Senate Majority Leader and Senator Bill Frist would have great support from the nursing profession. After all, he is also a highly respected heart transplant surgeon. Well, if you read a recent news release sent out by the Tennessee Chapter of the National Nurses Organizing Committee, you'd sure have to wonder about the good doctor's beside manner at least when it comes to these nurses. The group is promoting a recent study it did which it claims "makes it clear that Bill Frist is a danger to Tennessee patients. His time in the Senate made our state and our nation less healthy. As the healthcare crisis deepens, Tennessee cannot afford to elect someone who is unfit to be our Governor."

Ouch!

Now I suspect this group's politics would have them opposing Senator Frist even if he'd spent his life outside of politics in some profession other than medicine. The group complains about Frist's cozy relationships with the insurance and pharmaceutical industries and that he didn't do enough to fully fund TennCare. I find that last criticism kind of odd. I have lots of old news releases in my files with the Bredesen administration praising Senator Frist for his help in getting and keeping TennCare funding. But then I'd bet this nursing group might not be a big fan of Governor Bredesen and how he's handled TennCare either.

INSIDE POLITICS

Speaking of TennCare, we have a very special INSIDE POLITICS show this week, featuring the founding father of TennCare, former Governor Ned McWherter. Among other matters, he gives us his thoughts about how the program has worked and where it has come up short. Interestingly, McWherter wishes he had started the program a couple of years earlier in his second term. He thinks the implementation process was rushed in some ways and that, along with the management instability and all the lawsuits during the Sundquist administration, caused many of the long-term problems the program has struggled with over the years.

Of course, we talk politics. Even though he was a Clinton supporter, Governor McWherter is ready to line up and campaign for Obama this fall in Tennessee. He believes the Democrats face an uphill battle to carry the state, although he thinks Governor Bredesen may be popular enough to help turn that around. McWherter is strong with voters (rural and working class) in the areas where Obama seems weakest. As for any advice to the presidential candidate from the former governor, he says Obama should watch what he is promising on the trail and quit using "so many big adjectives."

Governor McWherter also has some fascinating stories to tell about the early removal from office of Governor Ray Blanton in 1979, particularly about how Blanton got the news and McWherter's fear at the time that Governor Blanton might call out the National Guard and arrest those who were trying to install then Governor-elect Lamar Alexander in office early to keep Blanton from issuing more prison pardons and commutations.

And, of course, we talk about this year's Senate race involving Alexander. McWherter says he will support the Democratic candidate but he admits he has a close relationship with Alexander, dating from his time as Speaker while Alexander was Governor.

And there's even more to see and hear in my conversation with Ned mcWherter. So tune in this weekend. INSIDE POLITICS can be seen each weekend on NEWSCHANNEL 5 PLUS, COMCAST CHANNEL 50 and on the main channel of the NEWSCHANNEL 5 network, WTVF-TV.  On Fridays (June 13) you can catch us on the PLUS at 7:00 PM and again on Saturdays (June 14) at 5:00 AM and 5:30 PM. Sundays (June 15) we are on both WTVF and the PLUS Channel at 5:00 AM and back on the PLUS one last time at 12:30 PM.

WAITING AND WAITING AND WAITING....

Remember a couple of years ago when Governor Bredesen said he was going to bring in outside experts (from FedEx) to help the state figure out how to shorten the notorious long wait in line that people regularly experience at Tennessee's drivers' license stations.

Did it work? Well, according to a story (6/13) by THE TENNESSEAN's Brad Schrade, no.

His article says a recent audit by the comptroller's office found "the state Safety Department (which operates the drivers' license stations) can't properly assess its customer service operation." That's apparently a very similar finding to what came out of two earlier audits in 1997 and in 2004  and. The Schrade story also says the Department has also pretty much ignored implementing the recommendations of the Governor's FedEx study. So, says the audit, the problem "continues to persist."

And that's not all.

According to THE TENNESSEAN article, the new audit says that despite a state law requiring it, the Safety Department "fails to verify completion of handgun safety courses before issuing a permit." And that the Safety Department does not have the manpower to operate its truck weigh stations across Tennessee 24/7 as intended. That means efforts to keep the state's interstate highway system safe from overweight and oversized trucks are being "hindered," according to the story. Finally, according to the audit, the Safety Department is failing to inspect school buses and child care vans the way it is supposed to, under state law.

Oh well, at least the Safety Department's chief function, the operation of the Tennessee Highway Patrol, seems to have managed to quit generating so many scandals in recent months. That's a little progress, I guess, but not much if you believe the findings of this audit. It looks the Governor still has some work to do with this state agency. 

THE LONG WAIT      

For thousands of Tennessee state workers, the long wait may soon be over. For others, however, it may be just beginning. Over 11,000 employees will be offered voluntary buyouts to leave their jobs. At least 2,100 need to accept it (and it seems like a pretty sweet deal in many ways, in terms of severance pay, health insurance and college tuition). But if not enough accept, then it could come to layoffs by early next year, to help take care of the state's big budget shortfall.

Given how generous the buyout package appears, I suspect it will be no problem finding 2,100 to take it and hit the road. If more than that accept (and that's possible too, I think) then seniority will be the determining factor.

There's just one more thing that is likely to haunt some of the people getting these buyout offers. Those receiving them have been designated by their bosses as "non-essential," which is never a good thing to be as an employee. It also means that if the state's budget problems and the overall economic slowdown persist, they will likely be on the list again when the state is looking to make further job reductions. They can only hope the state has enough reserve money left to offer another sweet deal for them to quit.    

NASHVILLE SPORTS

It seems Nashville's professional sports teams are always in the news.

While the controversy over what to do about a new stadium for the Nashville Sounds baseball team seems to have simmered down, that's not true for the city's long-time racing venue at the Fairgrounds, nor for the new owners of the Nashville Predators NHL hockey team.

After racing to the rescue in recent months to save professional hockey for the city by buying the team, the new mostly local owners are now (according to media reports) having to replace one of their minority partners because of a widening federal fraud investigation. While team officials say the situation will have no impact on day-to-day operations of the hockey franchise, investigators have come to Nashville to subpoena Metro documents about the purchase of the team and the new lease the city has signed with the group. Even the team itself is being asked to give some records to investigators.

Now this is probably just due diligence by investigators, but nonetheless, it is generating news stories and headlines that aren't nice to see when the Predators would rather see the media talk be about their upcoming draft picks and season ticket sales for this coming season.

As for the Fairgrounds race track, there are recent media reports about suits and countersuits between the city and the lease holders who operate the track over past-due property taxes. It is yet another sign that Metro might be just as happy if racing ends at the track (despite its long history there) and that the Fairgrounds may be moving elsewhere to hold the State Fair and would likely do so without any racing track facility coming with them.  

THE HONEYMOON

Usually when a new mayor takes office in Nashville, the speculation is about how long the honeymoon will last with the new Metro Council. Maybe the speculation should be about whether the Council's honeymoon with itself is already ending after less than nine months.

First it was the verbal fireworks during a Council budget hearing over the job future of a former Council member now serving as a contract employee of the Planning Commission. That then escalated into an angry flurry of letters and e-mails to council members involving Vice Mayor Diane Neighbors and her East Nashville colleague, Councilman Mike Jameson, with allegations and denials of conflicts of interests being strongly debated.

Now some councilman are reportedly upset about an event being planned by Council member Emily Evans, who has invited her colleagues to join her to swim the Cumberland River, which is the city's major water source. Evans says she wants to show how clean and wonderful the river is now. Some of her fellow council members have a different view, saying spending the money it will take to put on this event in terms of the safety personnel required to be on hand, is an expense the city shouldn't to incur at a time when the pending city budget lays off around 50 Metro employees.

With this kind of good feeling going around the Council, I wonder what it will be like in a couple of months, when they take up the always controversial issue of increasing water sewer rates and also imposing a new storm water runoff fee on Nashvillians. I suspect telling each other "to go jump in the lake" might be one of the mildest expressions being used.

So far, this impending ill will in the Council does not seem to be hurting the new Dean administration, although it was implicated by some in the Codes Department employee controversy. But clearly if council members continue to choose up sides on various issues and things get more and more personal, this could present yet one more major challenge to the administration in accomplishing its legislative priorities.

But Mayor Dean should take some comfort in the fact that the Council is poised to approve his first operating budget with very few changes and at what could be the earliest date in Metro history. Normally, it takes a special meeting held in the last week of June before final approval takes place, but this Council plans to make that decision on Tuesday, June 20, which is its normal meeting date on the third Tuesday of each month.

There may still be a little money moved around (more funds for MTA to keep bus routes running is the top priority). But after over two months of hearings and reviews, Council leaders can't find much to change in the Mayor's spending plan, without major cuts in something else in the budget. Things are just that tight.

RUSSERT

As I write these words, the news of the stunning death of NBC's Tim Russert (at the too-young age of 58) is sweeping across the nation and the world.

I had the great honor to meet Mr. Russert, the long-time host of the venerable "Meet the Press" weekly political interview show, when he came to Nashville in November 2000. It was just days after the deadlocked  and disputed presidential election between Vice President Al Gore and then-Texas Governor George W. Bush. All hell was breaking loose in Florida. It would have been easy to have called the Dominican Sisters at Aquinas College and told them: "I'm sorry. Things have obviously changed. I can't come down to Tennessee and speak at your annual dinner for the school.'

But that's not what Tim Russert did. He hoped on a plane and came to Nashville, attended the opening reception for Aquinas donors, then went to the dinner and made his speech to an overflow crowd, taking lots of questions as well at the end of his talk.

It was my privilege to be the master of ceremonies that evening, so not only did I get a chance to meet and talk with him, I also moderated the question-and-answer session and gave him some appreciation gifts from the Sisters at the end of the evening. Not surprisingly, he had his own special gifts to give the Sisters, including one of the famous white boards he used on Election Night which he presented to the school.   I have a picture of myself and Tim Russert taken that evening. It is something I will now treasure all the more.

I must say one of the people I try to emulate in my job as host of INSIDE POLITICS is Russert. Reading the MSNBC news story that announced his death, I saw this quote from Russert (from a TIME Magazine interview in 2007) about his interview and reporting style that won him every major journalism award.

"My views are not important," Russert said. He continued: "Lawrence Spivak, who founded ‘Meet the Press,' told me before he died that the job of the host is to learn as much as you can about your guest's positions and take the other side and to do that in a persistent and civil way. And that's what I try to do every Sunday."

All I know is that if you appeared on "Meet the Press" it was going to the political big leagues, and you better be ready to respond intelligently to anything you'd ever said publicly in your life, or face the consequences.

NBC says Tim Russert died doing what he must have loved, working on "Meet the Press", preparing voiceover promos for this week's show. He leaves not only an empty moderator's chair that will be hard for anyone to fill, he also leaves a void at NBC's news operations in Washington, where he served as bureau chief.

Given the historic nature and competitive forces shaping what looks to be another very close presidential election this year, we will all miss his keen insights and interviews as Campaign '08 continues. We will wonder what he would have thought and said as history unfolds. But the way, I look at it, being the good journalist he is, I wonder if Tim Russert has not wound up in the best position possible to find out, before all the rest of us, just exactly how this year's elections are going to turn out.

May he rest in peace.


NewsChannel 5 thanks Pat Nolan for providing this column every week. Mr. Nolan's commentary reflects his own opinions, not those of the NewsChannel 5 Network.  Comments about Capitol View should be sent to Pat Nolan directly via email at pat.nolan@dvl.com .

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