It is not unusual for Marsha Blackburn to start her day on national television.
Take for instance the early morning of Jan. 28, when the Republican congressman — her preferred title, as opposed to congresswoman — from Tennessee’s 7th District, which includes suburbs of Nashville and Memphis, joined MSNBC’s Morning Joe to discuss the budget, the debt and the role of women in business.
At one point, host Joe Scarborough suggested that the average citizen just doesn’t care much about the national debt.
“You know, I would’ve agreed with that as recently as three years ago, I would’ve agreed with that,” Blackburn replied. “Today, the debt is kitchen-table conversation.”
Later, the panel discussed a piece in The New York Times on the gender gap in the corporate world, as well as in politics. In it, writer Nicholas Kristof cited Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, who has said the gap is due to entrenched chauvinism, but also perhaps to women’s tendency to pursue advancement less aggressively than men.
“I think that there is a certain point in that, there’s a valid point,” said Blackburn, who has written a book on women as leaders titled Life Equity. “Part of it is, yes, women will lean in, they will push in, but then they don’t like being excluded because, maybe a male-dominated environment thinks that they’re too pushy and that they’re trying to force their way into a situation, so they will back up. And in my career, I’ve seen that happen, where I would push forward, and then I would move back a little bit.”
Blackburn knows what it is to operate in such an environment, having risen to prominence in
the persistently male-dominated world of politics. She served as chairman of the Williamson County Republican Party from 1989 to 1991, and was the first woman from Tennessee to be elected to Congress outright. (Three other women had previously represented the state in Congress, but only after the untimely deaths of their respective husbands.)
Since President Barack Obama took office in 2008, Blackburn’s media profile has grown steadily. For the past year-and-a-half in particular, she has maintained a seemingly ubiquitous cable news presence. A tea party conservative with a folksy demeanor that is at times reminiscent of a certain former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate, she has sometimes made news by her media appearances alone. A YouTube search yields pages of TV clips uploaded by viewers from the political left and right, for the purpose of mockery, outrage or celebration.
“I’ve always told my constituents,” she said in a recent interview with The City Paper, “you may not always agree with me, but you are always going to know where I stand.”
That is truer now, perhaps, than ever before. By August 2012, according to her office, Blackburn had made 40 national television appearances. So far this year, she has made 20 such appearances. And her increased presence is not confined to the weekday chatter on cable news. After appearing five times on Sunday morning political chat shows in 2012, Blackburn has shown up three times this year.
Soon after leaving the set of Morning Joe on Jan. 28, she appeared again, at 9:15 a.m. EST on the Fox News show America’s Newsroom, to discuss gun control proposals coming from the White House. As a graphic noting her “A” rating from the National Rifle Association scrolled at the bottom of the screen, she said an assault weapons ban was “not going to happen” (a prediction that has since been validated), questioned the actual size of the “gun show loophole,” and said the focus should be more on violence in our culture, and mental health.
Little more than an hour later, she showed up on the Fox Business channel’s Varney & Co., for a segment on women in business, where she echoed some of her comments at her Morning Joe appearance and said, “Women are the great multitaskers, we are running our homes, we are working with families.”
Later that afternoon, Blackburn was back on MSNBC for a segment on The Cycle, where she discussed the bipartisan immigration plan coming out of the Senate. She was waiting to see more of the details, she said, but would insist, among other things, that there be no amnesty and that for those already in the country, “There is a way that they are paying, and righting those wrongs.”
The nightcap was a stop by Wilkow!, hosted by Andrew Wilkow on Glenn Beck’s online network The Blaze TV, to talk again about immigration. Before that, though, Blackburn hit CNN, for an evening appearance on Erin Burnett OutFront, where she addressed the president’s recent claim that he shot skeet “all the time.”
“I think it is a relevant point of conversation,” she told Burnett. “If he is a skeet shooter, why have we not heard of this, why have we not seen photos, why has he not referenced it at any point in time as we have had this gun debate that is ongoing? You would have thought that it would have been a point of reference.”
“I’ll tell you what I do think,” she added. “He should invite me to Camp David, and I’ll go skeet shooting with him — and I bet I’ll beat him.”
From politics to policy to pure partisan theater — from Sunday mornings, to C-SPAN, to daytime cable news — Marsha Blackburn is in the middle of it all. And that’s nothing new.
Blackburn has been a player in Republican circles for more than 30 years, but her career has been characterized by an ability to capitalize on earth-shifting political events — most prominently, the Tennessee income tax revolt of 2000 and 2001, and the presidency of Barack Obama. Whether she is positioned to do the same in the current political moment — one of self-examination in the national GOP, after a presidential election that made plain a number of troubling electoral trends threatening to leave the party behind — remains an open question.
In 1977, Blackburn was a founding member of the Williamson County Young Republicans, before serving as chairman of the county party just over a decade later. From the vantage point of today’s political context — in which Republicans have supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature, and hold all three statewide offices — Blackburn’s rise in the Republican party chapter of a tony suburban county that is now one of the most conservative in the country seems unremarkable. But party activists remember that things were different back then. Bob Davis, who served as chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party from 2004 to 2007, recalled a time when there weren’t so many Republicans in Williamson County.
“You know the old Barbara Mandrell song ‘I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool’?” Davis said. “Well she was conservative when it wasn’t so cool.”
Blackburn won the Republican congressional nomination for the 6th District in 1992, but lost by 16 points to the Democratic incumbent Bart Gordon. Several years later, she was appointed by newly elected Republican Gov. Don Sundquist to head the Tennessee Film, Entertainment and Music Commission. In 1998 she was elected to the state Senate.
Her ascent was ultimately propelled by the winds of a political force that made her a star and contributed to bringing about the first major shift in Tennessee’s political landscape since Reconstruction.
In 2000 and 2001, years before conservatives across the nation began organizing under the banner of the tea party movement, Blackburn was at the center of the conservative revolt sparked by a Sundquist-backed tax plan, which included a state income tax — now considered the third rail of Tennessee politics.
Even as Republicans in the current legislature are pushing a constitutional amendment that would ban a state income tax — though it is possibly banned already under the Tennessee constitution — fear of an income tax continues to be a useful issue for the state GOP. During the 2012 election, the party leveled the specious charge of support for an income tax against multiple Democratic candidates.
By joining with the Democrat-controlled legislature to push for an income tax, Sundquist brought on a storm. Conservative activists staged protests outside the legislature, and famously circled the Capitol in their cars, honking their horns to amplify their discontent.
The revolt also brought increased prominence to local talk radio hosts Phil Valentine (who has written a book about the episode, titled Tax Revolt) and Steve Gill, whose shows served as outposts for outraged conservatives — and the method of mass communication for staging protests.
Asked by The City Paper, Gill remembered it as a time when local talk radio started adopting the tone made famous by right-wing talkers like Rush Limbaugh. His show, for instance, started using the famous Darth Vader march from Star Wars when discussing “Darth Sundquist.”
Blackburn, he said, was at the front of a pack known in conservative quarters as the “Killer Bs,” consisting of Blackburn, state Sen. Mae Beavers and then-state Rep. Diane Black.
“Pretty quickly it devolved into, ‘Well fine, we can oppose you politically or we can go to war,’ ” said Gill, who announced the end of his radio show last year, “and you’ve chosen war, and I think that’s kind of where he pushed Marsha and a whole host of the rest of us.”
One evening, Gill recalled, Blackburn sent out word by email to radio hosts and others that a vote on the tax proposal had been planned for the end of the day, and urging them to rally the “troops.”
(In his book, Valentine recounts similar scenes in a chapter titled “We Need Troops,” detailing how Blackburn would send e-mail messages, through her assistant, to the hosts so they could alert their listeners. At another point in the book, Valentine recalls meeting with Blackburn at her home, and having her give him a crash course on the state’s budget document.)
“I think part of the error that the Sundquist administration made in all that was not accepting Marsha saying, ‘Look I can’t support you on this,’ and then demonizing people that couldn’t support the plan. Because, I’m sorry, we were sticking firm to our principles,” Gill said. “Just because you abandoned yours doesn’t mean we’ve got to abandon ours.”
The income tax was eventually defeated, and Democrats’ support for it is now widely seen as a significant factor in their precipitous fall from 100-year dominance of state politics to effective irrelevance.
“I think that when you look at the state income tax battle, it was a battle over policy and it was a battle over philosophy,” Blackburn said. “And people in this state, I think, did an incredible job, once they had the
Blackburn rode her newfound status as a conservative hero straight to Washington, D.C., winning the 2002 7th District congressional race with more than 70 percent of the vote.
Early on in Congress, Blackburn approached the job with the sort of stranger-come-to-town, outsider attitude that has been a path to higher office for many tea party Republicans in recent years. Longtime party insiders recalled a congressional underclassman with an independent streak whose relentless political ambition, and frequent freewheeling, often put her at odds with the established leadership. That wouldn’t have been unfamiliar territory for Blackburn. Even before she led a revolt against a governor from her own party, she reportedly burned travel receipts and turned in a bag of ashes to Sundquist’s office, which had asked for records of her expenses from a business trip to Los Angeles.
Since then, they said, she’s mellowed to a certain extent.
“She learned in order to get ahead, you’ve got to play it a little differently and not stick your finger in everyone’s eye over it,” one Republican consultant told The City Paper.
If Blackburn learned to play a little nicer with members of her own party, it may well have contributed to her rise within its ranks. In 10 years on the Hill, she has become a part of the established Republican leadership in the House. She has served on the majority and minority whip teams, and as communications chairman for the Republican Study Committee, a caucus of House conservatives with more than 170 members, and the National Republican Congressional Committee, the committee dedicated to getting Republicans elected to Congress. She currently serves as vice chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and holds a seat on the House Budget Committee.
Nevertheless, Blackburn has kept up her fiery brand, powered largely by conservative skepticism about Obama’s presidency. The role of the (mostly) loyal opposition has been a boon to the political careers of many conservatives, but particularly to Blackburn. The fresh-faced, media-savvy grandmother has managed to spend the past several years rallying tea party conservatives, and outraging liberals, while avoiding the stumbles that have brought about the downfall of others with whom she has been associated.
That’s not to say she has abandoned the sort of pseudo-witty, wink-and-a-finger-pistol attacks that made figures like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann easy fodder for late-night comedy shows. Blackburn’s skeet-shooting challenge to the president — or a more recent quip on the Fox Business Network that “the president can can fill out a bracket, but he cannot do a budget” — come to mind. However, her political experience dwarfs Palin’s, and she has resisted wandering down the conspiratorial rabbit holes into which Bachmann has often disappeared.
All the while, Blackburn has bolstered her conservative bona fides. She has consistently sponsored legislation to repeal pieces of Obamacare, and has introduced bills to levy 5, 10 and even 15 percent across-the-board spending cuts every year since she arrived in D.C. During a July 2012 appearance on CNN, Blackburn was confronted with the charge that the repeated efforts of House Republicans to repeal Obamacare was political theater — tilting at a windmill, in other words, for the sake of looking like a fighter. When she resisted that charge, another guest pushed back, asserting without exaggeration that Republicans had voted on repealing Obamacare 30 times already.
“And we’re going to do it again,” Blackburn said. “I wish we’d go do it every single day. It’s a terrible piece of legislation.”
This year, she introduced another bill that would repeal part of Obamacare, a trio of across-the-board spending cuts, and legislation that would prohibit federal family planning grants from being awarded to any entity, such as Planned Parenthood, that provides abortions. She continues to be a proud member of the most stubborn set of House Republicans when it comes to the now regular fiscal negotiations. Even as indiscriminate budget sequestration was looming, Blackburn was calling for deeper across-the-board cuts on everything but defense.
When the National Journal released its annual list of the most conservative members of the House of Representatives in February, Blackburn appeared at No. 3, as the most conservative woman in the chamber, and the only member of the Tennessee delegation in the top 20. (Another former “Killer B,” Rep. Diane Black, was tied for 26th.)
At the top of the list was the mascot of Republican woe in last year’s elections: then-Rep. Todd Akin.
In a January column for The New Yorker, George Packer used the vote on the recent fiscal cliff compromise to illustrate “the political isolation of the American South.” In the House, he noted, Republicans from the Far West and the Northeast largely favored the compromise, while those from the Midwest were split. But House Republicans from the South opposed the deal 81-12. Blackburn was among them.
That phenomenon is increasingly apparent when it comes to social issues like same-sex marriage.
The Middle Tennessee State Survey Group earlier this month released the results of its biannual poll, which found that 62 percent of Tennesseans oppose allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry — a high number, even among Southern states. By comparison, a Washington Post-ABC News national poll released at roughly the same time found that 58 percent of Americans said it should be legal for gay and lesbian couples to get married.
It’s an issue in the midst of dramatic political change: Less than a year ago, Obama became the first president to support same-sex marriage rights; his former secretary of state (and likely 2016 presidential candidate), Hillary Clinton has just done the same; and just this month Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio announced he is now a supporter as well, after his son came out as gay. To what degree Tennessee politics will mirror that change remains to be seen.
In the wake of last year’s presidential election, Obama became the first president since Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower to win at least 51 percent of the popular vote twice, defeating Mitt Romney by significant margins amongst women, blacks and Hispanics, and the GOP has been forced to look inward. Out of that effort earlier this month came the so-called autopsy report — formally titled the Growth and Opportunity Project report — from the Republican National Committee, a 100-page self-diagnosis with a list of various potential antidotes.
This is the current political weather event; one that could determine whether the GOP will experience a national renaissance or a dark age of declining influence in post-Obama America. This pressure will determine who will become the Republican Party’s standard bearers.
While conventional wisdom — which almost by definition tend to oversimplify matters — holds that Republicans must moderate their stances on issues like same-sex marriage and immigration to remain viable, there are those within the party who feel that abandoning their stance on these and other issues would be the death of the party.
Either way, the fact remains that Republicans have lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections, and that the demographic makeup of their party looks less and less like that of the country as a whole. These are trends they will want to reverse.
When it comes to Blackburn, the question is: Will she seize the moment, operating as she has in the past with a mix of sincere principle and shrewd political calculation, or will one of the nation’s most conservative politicians, from one of its most conservative states, be isolated from changing political winds, and end up marginalized as a result?
In general, the debate within the Republican Party over the root cause of its recent misfortunes is a debate about whether it’s the product or the presentation that has gone stale. In other words, are a majority of Americans rejecting what Republicans are selling, or is the problem how it’s been sold, and by whom?
In an appearance on The Daily Rundown last month, Blackburn said it was “a little bit of both.” But as a whole, her comments seemed to suggest it’s more of the latter. The party has “the right set of principles,” she said, but “sometimes how we communicate that message gets a little bit muddled, and I think many times the messenger has the tendency to maybe not look as new and as fresh.” She applauded emerging national Republican figures like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who recently urged the GOP to “stop being the stupid party,” and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Further suggesting that the problem is the container not the goods, she rejected the notion, in an interview with The City Paper before the RNC released its report, that conservatives like her are an endangered species.
“No, I think that there is a need for individuals to do a better job of educating what Republicans stand for,” she said. “And to make certain that they are putting the focus — GOP stands for Great Opportunity Party. That is what we are, that’s what we believe in. We are the Government of the People party. And come 2014 we better be the Get the People to the Polls party, if we intend to win.”
Whether intentional or not, Blackburn’s assessment is potentially self-serving. If the party decides it has a branding problem, then replacing the Todd Akins with the Marsha Blackburns could be the solution. She is, after all, a conservative woman who has not yet drifted into confused public pronouncements about “legitimate rape.” (And she’s a former image consultant to boot).
If the product is the problem, then the future is perhaps more complicated for figures like Blackburn, who may end up as the most appealing messengers carrying a message most of America no longer finds appealing.
None of that would threaten her prominence as a political figure in Tennessee, an increasingly isolated state, in an increasingly isolated region. Blackburn’s name has surfaced before as a potential statewide candidate, whether for a Senate seat or the governor’s office. Wherever she goes, she’s unlikely to go quietly, and you can bet it will be televised.