Displaying an evolving new normal in his gubernatorial reign, a believing-in-better Bill Haslam last week officially and formally, albeit cautiously, expressed mild disagreement for the first time with a piece of legislation that reached his desk.
“Good legislation should bring clarity and not confusion,” he stated with regard to HB368. “My concern is that this bill has not met this objective. For that reason, I will not sign the bill but will allow it to become law without my signature.”
On one side, the governor had faced united Republican support in the Legislature for the bill, which authorizes classroom questioning of evolution. Even a few Democrats — mostly those worried about being accused of opposing the Bible in their re-election campaigns — had joined the sponsors’ call for more “creative thinking” about prevailing scientific theories.
On the other side, he faced a bunch of scientific types, academicians and around 3,200 petition-signers calling for a veto of the “monkey bill” they saw as a sneaky way to return to the 1920s, when Tennessee brought criminal charges against a Dayton teacher for talking about evolution. And the national media was listening to them and quoted the hoots of derision at us uneducated, backwoods hillbilly Tennesseans.
Now, this probably annoyed our governor somewhat, given that he’s made a serious effort of trying to make education better, not worse, with things like teacher evaluations, expanded charter schools and other efforts traveling under the banner of education reform.
And you can argue reasonably that the evolution bill really doesn’t do anything of consequence. Haslam did so when questioned about the bill, after initially acknowledging he knew nothing about it.
When the bill landed on his desk, the governor did not sign it. He did not veto it. He did nothing.
Still, that is something. It’s called evolution.
Recall that, as a candidate back in 2010, Haslam encountered a group of Second Amendment advocates who pressed him at length, belligerently some might say, on whether he supported the idea of repealing the state’s handgun carry permit law and instead allowing anyone to carry a pistol unless otherwise prohibited by law, say by being a convicted felon. The candidate dodged, suggested that maybe he didn’t think that “constitutional carry” was really a great idea. But when pressed further, he declared that, by gosh, if the Legislature passed such a bill, by gosh, he would sign it.
Since being elected, Haslam has signed everything put in front of him by legislators. Until last week.
You can make a reasonable argument that a lot of the stuff he has previously signed was inconsequential at best or, at least, created more confusion than clarity. But he signed it anyway. Call it new the normal, believing in better or evolution.
There was another recent indication of evolution in gubernatorial attitude. Our genteel governor, who generally is loath to criticize anybody or anything, attacked the media. Granted, that’s not much. The media has been widely criticized by most everyone, from legislators to presidential candidates. But, for Haslam, it’s an evolution.
And our chief executive added a bit of a twist. Instead of a Newt Gingrich-style denouncing of the “elite media,” our governor criticized the media for not being elite enough. Rather than focusing on serious issues of importance to the elite observers of policy matters, he declared, media are wrongly riveted to the “contest for the craziest political issue around.”
Now, he wasn’t ready to criticize the legislators who generated those crazy political issues. But interestingly, the only one he mentioned was “saggy pants,” also the only one in the apparently crazy competition that was sponsored by a Democrat.
Why not criticize legislators?
“I will blame them when the media says, ‘We can do a better job with being substantive about issue coverage,’ ” he said.
Well, OK, governor, for the record: We can do a better job with being substantive about issue coverage. Give me the most under-reported topic, and I promise to devote this space to it soon. Now, would you send me a list of your top 10 craziest political issues, please? I’m working on mine.
Believing in better, we can all evolve toward the new normal.