Philip Norman Bredesen is writing a book, crusading for bipartisanship and federal debt reduction, promoting the study of humanities, making speeches, keeping track of investments taken out of a blind trust and contemplating what to do next.
“I’ve got another career in me. I’ll figure out what it is in a while,” he said in an interview last week.
Three weeks shy of his 69th birthday, Bredesen joked that “I think I’ve gotten younger, actually” since watching Bill Haslam take the oath of office to succeed him as governor of Tennessee almost two years ago — an event he described as “sort of an out-of-body experience.”
Interestingly, Bredesen did not rule out re-entry into the political arena as a candidate for something in 2014 when asked about the possibility. That is a contrast to the latter part of his reig as governor when he flatly declared he would not run for any political office in 2012.
Bredesen says, “There’s no message there.” He’s just keeping options open.
As a loyal Democrat, Bredesen this year declared his support for President Obama’s re-election, endorsed the party’s 4th Congressional District nominee, Eric Stewart, and did “robo-calls” supporting a handful of legislative candidates such as former Rep. Eddie Yokley, D-Greeneville, who lost this week to Republican David Hawk. But such partisan politicking, he says, takes up “less than 2 percent of my time.”
An authority on health care
In listing things he does do with his time these days, Bredesen puts his new book first. In 2011, he published “Fresh Medicine,” a review of the nation’s health care system and efforts to change it through the Affordable Care Act.
“I just like the notion of people involved in public life writing in extended fashion about policy rather than self-promotional tracts,” he said.
As a man who made his fortune in the health care industry and spent much of his gubernatorial energy in cutting back on the state’s TennCare system, this is a topic Bredesen can discuss at length. His new book, scheduled for publication in September 2013, will focus on the national debt and its interrelationship with health care reforms, he said, with the goal of “taking a complicated topic and distilling it down.”
Republicans have regularly quoted Bredesen’s remark from years ago that the federal law, which they call Obamacare, would be the “mother of all mandates” to state governments.
Bredesen shrugged at mention of this, then observed that “the big problem” with the law is “it was pounded on through (Congress) on a totally partisan basis.”
“Now, at this point, we can’t back out of it easily,” he said, and the focus should be on bipartisan efforts to modify the Affordable Care Act, not repeal it. As a general proposition, he proposes more flexibility for states and putting more cost-containment provisions into the law with national budget deficits in mind. On pharmaceutical benefits, for example, blood pressure medication should be covered for everyone, but antihistamines only in an exceptional case.
The former governor said the current governor appears to be acting appropriately while awaiting postelection developments on health care. Haslam has declined to say whether he will move to launch Tennessee’s own “health care exchange” under the law or expand Medicaid enrollment as allowed, but not required, under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
“I think he’s probably just playing it smart,” Bredesen said. “States are in a very good negotiating position.”
Bredesen lamented current partisan rancor and divisiveness, but says there are ways for political leaders to deal with the situation.
“Don’t blame the barbarians. They’re always there,” he said. “Blame Rome.”
“If Congress, the courts and the government are not doing what people think they should do, maybe we should look at why they’ve lost their trust,” he said.
Along these lines, Bredesen said that, as governor, he viewed illegal immigration as “not one of the top 10 problems facing America” but recognized that public outcry on the subject was serious to the point of “getting out of hand.” As a means of addressing the issue reasonably, he ordered Tennessee National Guard troops to join in border patrol efforts, Bredesen said.
Beyond the book, Bredesen says, “The possibilities for being involved in public policy without being elected to do it are kind of broader today than at anytime in history.”
Some of the things he is doing:
* Serving as one of six former governors with The Bipartisan Policy Center, a national group described on its website as “the only Washington, D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship.” The group was founded by former U.S. senators, including Tennessee’s Howard Baker.
* Serving with “Fix the Debt,” a national group that bills itself as a bipartisan effort — involving former politicians as well as what Bredesen calls “a who’s who of American industry” — to prod the president and Congress, after the election, into resolving the nation’s budget deficit problem without devastating the economy. Bredesen envisions this as involving some work “behind the scenes when the time comes” and professes optimism that the ultimate upshot will be “something sensible and not something crazy.”
* Serving as “the only fairly recently practicing politician” on the Commission on Humanities and Social Services of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The idea is to ensure that the arts are not neglected in the currently popular push to prioritize math, science and engineering in education circles. Bredesen, a Harvard University physics graduate, says he was surprised to be selected to the group’s leadership and has found it “more fun” than other endeavors, involving meetings with celebrities ranging from film producer George Lucas to cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
* Making speeches on policy issues, notably health care, and sometimes for an honorarium. Quipped Bredesen: “It’s sort of like a loose woman who suddenly discovers she can get paid for what she’s been doing all these years.”
In an interview shortly before leaving office, Bredesen said he and his wife, Andrea Conte, hoped to spend substantial time traveling to locales ranging from Australia to Alaska. That hasn’t happened except for “a couple of days on the West Coast,” he said.
‘Greenbelt’ law worth revisiting
Bredesen’s name has come up in a couple of minor controversies since he left office, most recently when Silicon Ranch, a solar industry venture with the former governor as a principle investor, applied for tax breaks authorized under a law successfully pushed to passage by his administration. The firm was founded by Regan Farr, who headed the state Revenue Department while Bredesen was governor, and Matt Kisber, who served as commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development.
Bredesen said criticism on the subject “kind of irritated me” and was unwarranted. Most of the company’s business, he said, is outside of Tennessee. He said Silicon Ranch did not seek the tax breaks until after the Republican-controlled Legislature had debated a bill that would have repealed them earlier this year.
The legislative debate and decision to leave the tax breaks in place, he said, justified the application for the special tax treatment allowed under the law.
“We thought that kind of cleaned it up,” he said.
Bredesen’s home on fashionable Chickering Lane in Nashville was cited as an example of wealthy individuals taking advantage of Tennessee’s “Greenbelt Law” in recent stories by the News Sentinel and The Commercial Appeal on the tax break granted for properties devoted to “agricultural use.”
“I didn’t know it existed for 25 years,” said Bredesen of the Greenbelt law. “When I got out of the blind trust, I learned a lot of things.”
As governor, Bredesen had placed most of his financial holdings in a blind trust.
The former governor said the Greenbelt law “probably ought to be tightened up” and he has no objections if that impacts him. He qualifies now mostly on the basis of cutting hay on his property.”I’ll pay whatever taxes are due on 80 acres,” he said.