NASHVILLE – Two old friends, fresh from a day of mourning in rainy Boston, came south Saturday night to pledge to a roomful of roaring Tennessee Democrats that Ted Kennedy’s dream indeed will never die.
Al Gore and Bill Clinton – ghosts of Democratic victories past who are increasingly showing up to buck up the faithful as President Obama goes through his first real trials in office – were the star guests at the Tennessee Democratic Party’s annual Jackson Day dinner.
As you would expect from two very skilled old pros, they were careful to not inject a note of abject partisanship into a day when much of the nation watched the services and burial for the legendary Massachusetts senator, a man Gore called “by far the most effective member of the United States Senate that I ever served with.”
And both men – as was Obama in his eulogy early in the day – seemed deliberately careful to underline the bi-partisan mourners who helped take Kennedy to his final rest Saturday. “There were as many Republicans as Democrats in that church today,” Gore said.
But Clinton and Gore also offered a skillfully threaded approach that might allow Team Obama to channel the emotion and determination many party activists feel at Kennedy’s loss without spilling over into the kind of raw partisan sentiment that Republicans have warned will trigger a major pushback as an inappropriate attempt to make political hay out of Kennedy’s death.
Clinton, who made a bit of political history by actually arriving early for this event, gave a typically rambling, discursive lecture on, among other things, the history of American politics since 1968 and the history of health care reform from 1994 on, accompanied by a corrective lesson explaining how the failure of his health care initiative really didn’t cost Democrats control of Congress in 1994.
Twenty-five minutes into the speech, the customary warning sign for veteran Clinton watchers appeared: “I don’t want to bore you with all the details, but. . . . .”
But the message, on a day when Kennedy was remembered as being devoted the least of American society, was that Democrats need to fight. On that, the now silver-haired man from Hope was resoundingly clear.
“You need to back these congressmen and let them know you’re not going to let them be steamrollered by a bunch of people who have been frightened,” Clinton said, in reference to the town hall tumult of the last few weeks. “Don’t let anybody tell you that President Obama wants to ration health care. We are rationing health care in America.”
“I’m not a very good politician any more; I just say what I think,” Clinton said. “But I have been waiting for this for 40 years . . . . to recreate the American dream.”
Gore, in a much shorter set of remarks, was loose-limbed and noticeably thinner than in recent years – and he seemed to elicit the night’s most emotional moment.
Playing off the focus of the Kennedy funeral on the Gospel of Matthew’s parable of Jesus taking care of “the least of us,” Gore thundered that the country has “a moral duty to pass health care reform. This year.”
The two former sidekicks also showed a new warmth in a relationship that was famously frosty after Gore’s unsuccessful presidential bid – a period in which Gore blamed Clinton for not doing enough to elect him and Clinton blamed Gore for running a wretched campaign that didn’t utilize Clinton’s legendary political skills enough.
“Al Gore is the best vice president this country ever had,” Clinton said, adding that Gore has not gotten nearly enough credit for helping stage manage the recent release of the two journalists Clinton helped free from North Korea.
Gore “managed an enormously complicated set of discussions that went on a lot longer than anyone knows. He did it with discretion, it never leaked to the press and it would have wrecked the whole thing if it had.”
Tennessee Democrats find themselves in need of all the friends they can get at the moment – and it certainly doesn’t hurt if they are named Clinton and Gore.
Having lost the state legislature to the GOP last year for the first time in 40 years, Tennessee Democrats see next year’s legislative and gubernatorial elections as crucial to keeping the state from turning from a very dark purple into a vibrant red.
With redistricting looming after the next census – a process the legislature will oversee and which could well determine the future of a host of moderate Democratic politicians, including U.S. House members like Rep. Bart Gordon, who holds Gore’s old congressional seat.
A number of Democratic operatives here, in fact, fear for Gordon’s chances next year, even before redistricting, given the tough votes he has had to cast on Obama’s ambitious agenda—health care reform in particular.
Republicans also are seen as having at least an even-odds chance of winning the governor’s mansion, where term-limited Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen exits at the end of next year.
Democrats have been buoyed somewhat by the summer entry into the race of Mike McWherter, the 52-year-old son of former Gov. Ned Ray McWherter, who at least has strong name recognition throughout the state.
Ned McWherter, a folksy political character with a legendary drawl, has been friends with Clinton since his days as Arkansas governor and was largely responsible for the former president’s attendance at Saturday’s dinner, according to state Democrats familiar with the event’s planning.
“Governor McWherter wrote him a formal letter and then one day, the phone rang and it was Bill Clinton,” said a Tennessee Democratic official. “He said, ‘Ned Ray, you really want me to come to this?’ And the governor said, ‘Well . . . yeah.”