Tennesee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, says his party must be more centrist

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010; 5:30 PM

BOSTON -- The nation is on a "disastrous fiscal track" and Democrats must deal with it more directly or risk "huge" political consequences, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) said in an interview here Friday.

Bredesen, who is finishing his second and final term as governor, said President Obama is not to blame for the nation's overall fiscal condition, noting that presidents as far back as Ronald Reagan allowed the deficit to balloon out of control.

But he was blunt in saying that his party has not been successful in expanding on its 2006 and 2008 victories and must move toward the center in order to win back support of independent and moderate voters.

Bredesen called the new health-care law "a missed opportunity," saying Democrats would have been better off politically if they had been able to put together bipartisan reform. He said efforts by a small, bipartisan group of governors to offer ideas for doing so were rebuffed by Congress.

The governor's comments reopened a long-standing schism within the Democratic Party between its liberal and centrist wings. Centrists held sway through much of Bill Clinton's presidency but the energy shifted to progressive and grassroots activists during George W. Bush's eight years in the White House.

The economic problems brought huge increases in federal spending under Obama, which has triggered a backlash among Republicans and many independents, although many liberal activists have been disappointed in Obama for not pushing harder to implement an even more progressive agenda.

With Democrats looking at potentially substantial losses in the midterm elections, the debate about the direction of the party is likely to flare again. Bredesen, coming from a southern state that has trended toward the GOP for some years, has long been an advocate for a more centrist party. His comments on Friday reflected his acute concerns that the Democrats' current problems are partly self-inflicted.

The Tennessee governor was particularly critical of the Democratic Congress. "We have put a lot of Democratic policies in the hands of committees and committee chairs who are not members of the New Democrats," he said.

After their 2006 and 2008 victories, he said, Democrats needed to show a new face to the voters. Those victories, he said, were not evidence of a long-term engagement between voters and the party but only a tryout for the party to show off new ideas.

"I don't think we've done particularly well in the tryout, and I think it's going to hurt us," he said. "It's certainly hurting Democrats in Tennessee. And I wish we could get back more toward the middle of the road."

Bredesen said he sees weakness and disorganization among Republicans, whom he described as "wandering off in this strange territory." But he said he worries that Democrats will not be able to capitalize on GOP problems unless the party is "out of the control of people who are pushing in a very different direction" than he favors.

He was not directly critical of the president's leadership, but when asked where he put Obama on the ideological spectrum, he said, "I'm not sure. I know in times that I talked to him during the campaign, he came across to me as fairly centrist on things. But I have to say that on things that have happened so far, he would be certainly well to the left of any independent in the country.

Politics is a game of addition, he said, and Democrats need to do better on that front. "You have an election, and then you spend all your time trying to add to that -- keep the ones you have and try to find new ways to bring in other kinds of people. And I don't think we're doing that very well right now as a party."

On fiscal matters, Bredesen said he supported the stimulus package, regarding it as necessary to deal with the severe recession. But he added, "These deficits are nothing more than mortgaging the future productivity of the country. You can't possibly sustain doing it at the level we're at."

He said the acceptance of long-term deficits reflected a cultural change that will have severe consequences for the country. Congress and the administration, he added, have been "very aggressive about spending money and I think it's made easy by the fact that we're so far off the norm at the moment that it's easy to add a little more."

Asked what the political cost to his party could be, he said, "I think it's huge."

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