The 2010 midterm election was intense and hard fought, and as the American people voted for the checks and balances of divided government on the federal level, Tennessee voters increased Republican majorities in both houses of the General Assembly, and elected Bill Haslam, a Republican, as our state’s next governor.
When either party controls both houses of the General Assembly and the governor’s office, the moderate majority of Tennesseans get a bit nervous. Moderate voters, independents in particular, believe unified control leads to ideological arrogance and legislative over-reach.
Voters in Tennessee are less about demagoguery and more about pragmatism. Tennessee Democrats are more conservative than national Democrats, and Tennessee Republicans are more moderate compared to the national GOP as a whole. And unlike in Congress, the political center in the General Assembly has not collapsed. There is significant ideological overlap between the parties.
But there is a danger, with a growing toxic and extreme partisan environment, of some dissipation of the center. Some legislators, especially those newly elected through Tea Party support, seem to believe that compromise is collaboration, when compromise is actually the key to governing. Republicans should understand that this year’s victory should not be misconstrued as an ideological mandate. Our political system does not work if politicians treat the process as a war in which the overriding goal is to thwart the adversary. Nor does the political system work if politicians treat members of the other party as enemies to be destroyed.
A clear sign of Republican moderation in the state House is the nomination of Rep. Beth Harwell of Green Hills for speaker over the far more conservative Rep. Glen Cassada of Williamson County. With Harwell as speaker and the moderate Haslam as governor, state government has a chance to actually be hospitable this coming session.
One party rule does not mean the minority is muted, nor does it have to mean gridlock. Voters expect the two parties to work together on issues of great significance like building a jobs based economy. The job of legislators and the governor is to define the common ground that exists on any given issue and then build on it.
Real power in the General Assembly resides in the center, especially if centrists will reach across party lines to build a moderate coalition. There are many areas where the center can lead in proposing new solutions for our state. Now the question remains whether the two parties will work together and whether they truly understand the will of the people.
John Rutherford is a freelance public relations project manager and writer based in Nashville and a former association executive and Democratic strategist