By Jim O’Hara
The Tennessee Republican Party, nicknamed the “party of Lincoln,” passed away last Thursday as it was being carted between state House and Senate committee hearing rooms.
A full historical autopsy won’t be carried out for 50 years.
But observers cited as apparent causes of death: lack of historical knowledge, medical and scientific disinformation akin to that peddled by 19th century patent medicine hucksters, and what the late Gov. Ned McWherter used to call “a severe case of the dumb ass.”
It is unclear if the state’s three attending political leaders will be cited for political malpractice given their own political health conditions. Gov. Bill Lee is already suffering from a lack of governing philosophy except for protecting his right flank. House Speaker Cameron Sexton’s case of gubernatorial ambition is considered acute. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s fixation with 17 hasn’t been seen in the state since it afflicted the late Lt. Gov. John Wilder; political observers thought it had been eradicated along with smallpox.The GOP, as it was also sometimes called, was born in the mid-1960s with the influx of Tennessee Democrats, particularly in and around Memphis, who were disaffected by President Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of the civil rights movement. Observers saw this as an early indication of the chronic diseases that would plague the GOP in its later years.
However, the election of Sen. Howard Baker Jr. in 1966 and his seemingly moderate approach – even helping President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, win approval of the Panama Canal treaty – held out promise for a healthy Republican Party that understood the difference between campaigning and governing. The election of Winfield Dunn as the first Republican governor in 50 years seemed to confirm this prognosis.
However, concerns for the GOP’s long-term health surfaced that same election with the racist dog whistles of Congressman Bill Brock’s successful 1970 campaign to unseat Sen. Albert Gore Sr. Brock’s tenure in office as a conservative but not rigidly ideological Republican, though, allayed some concern for the health of the state Republican party, and its adolescent years helping the Reagan administration dismantle federal government programs appeared a typical teen-age prank.
Lamar Alexander’s transformation from suit-wearing Nashville lawyer to red-and-black plaid-shirt-wearing hiker promised a new maturity and healthy outlook for the almost-adult party. Creating Democrats for This and Democrats for That groups, working with a lefty teachers’ union on education reform, and bringing a union-shop auto company to the state, Alexander, as governor, was barely recognizable as a Republican.Unfortunately, he contracted an early-onset case of presidential ambition. A complication of this syndrome was allowing young, ideological partisans to have control of the state party apparatus. Focused on wedge issues and ideological purity, they bulked up the party much like an athlete on steroids.
While the party suffered from this condition, it benefited candidates like Bill Frist, Fred Thompson, Don Sundquist, Bob Corker and eventually Bill Haslam – all of whom seemingly ran for various offices because they had gotten bored with their day jobs. At first the ideological steroids seemed tolerated and able to be controlled, although an outbreak of uncontrolled ideological inanity – first isolated and identified in Marsha Blackburn – gave some observers pause for the party’s long-term health. Too, while the candidates like Frist et al. won elections easily, they found governing difficult while on the ideological steroids.
The GOP is survived by numerous former officeholders, most of whom deny any affiliation with the current party, but all of whom have records of voting in recent past Republican primaries,The party’s decline after the 2016 Trump infection, however, indicated the end was near. Then, in 2020, when Bill Hagerty and Manny Sethi, both of whom had been known to walk and chew gum at the same time, raced for the Trump dunce cap in their Senate primary, most observers began a death watch, culminating in the past week’s extraordinary session of the General Assembly to declare Tennessee a COVID-free state.
Services will be announced at a later date, although it is rumored that the spirit of the late Tennessean political reporter Larry Daughtrey is currently holding court at Brown’s, with a sly grin on his face while he thumbs through old copies of his columns as proof that he saw this end coming.
Jim O’Hara served as Associate Commissioner for Public Affairs at the Food and Drug Administration from 1993-1997 and Associate Administrator for External Affairs at the Environmental Protection Agency from 2012-2013.