Sunday Column: Haslam More In Tune With Muddled Middle Than Supermajority

Some of the findings in this month’s Vanderbilt University poll suggest that the Republican supermajority Legislature may be a bit out of sync with the overall Tennessee electorate — at least in comparison with Gov. Bill Haslam.
In general approval ratings, Haslam came in with 63 percent; the General Assembly at 51. Both a lot better than President Barack Obama at 40 percent, much less the U.S. Congress at 21 percent.
The multi-question Vandy poll results from surveying 813 registered voters earlier this month raises the possibility the differences could actually be in tune with issues on occasion.
Consider, for example:
n On Medicaid expansion, the polling indicated 60 percent of Tennesseans support the notion, up 9 points from six months earlier, though they don’t like the Affordable Care Act.

The issue never came to a vote in the Legislature this year and nobody has done a public legislator poll, but the rhetoric was strongly against the idea from supermajority members, and one hears an informal nose count indicated somewhat more than 60 percent of those in opposition were Republicans, enough that, had Haslam actually proposed expansion, the odds were strongly against legislative approval even with assured unanimous Democratic support.
But Haslam, who of course has his own polling figures, struck a muddled middle stance. He made it clear that he doesn’t like Obamacare but declared he would like to approve Medicaid expansion — if various bells and whistles were attached that, so far, the federal government has refused to ring and blow.
n On school vouchers, Haslam proposed a limited program this year that would have given state money only to children from low-income families now enrolled in schools with the very worst performance records. A substantial contingent of the supermajority pushed for a broader, statewide voucher program, and Haslam, fearing they might amend his bill to go beyond his thinking, had it withdrawn.
The poll results indicate our governor was right there in the muddled middle where most voters kinda, sorta wanted him to be.
The poll, presenting its questions in a curious middle-of-the-road format, found 31 percent of respondents favor a statewide school voucher program and 35 favor a limited voucher program while 26 percent oppose any voucher program at all. Now, if you combine the limited and statewide, you get 66 percent for some kind of voucher program.
John Geer, a Vanderbilt political science professor and co-director of the poll, says the questions were tailored to the legislative situation and those “limited” folks would probably have split — no notion how — if presented with the option of a broad voucher bill or no voucher bill at all. The suspicion is that our governor knew how they would split and thus opted for no bill at all. Until next year, anyhow.
As a water cooler conversation topic, the poll also found that 49 percent of Tennesseans now support gay marriage and/or civil unions while 46 percent are opposed to both. Insofar as same-sex marriage goes, of course, this is merely a curiosity question since that would be unconstitutional in Tennessee.
But when asked if there should be health insurance and employee benefits for same-sex couples, the poll found 62 percent support for that concept. Haslam is for “diverse hiring practices,” at least in business, adopting the phrase used in one interview.
Again, no legislator poll here. The closest thing, maybe, is that bill last session that said city and county governments cannot pass a local ordinance requiring “diverse hiring practices” as a condition for getting a city or county contract. Republican legislators were not conflicted on that one; they voted almost unanimously for it.
The governor confessed that he was conflicted. On one hand, he favored those “diverse hiring practices” for business but on the other he likes the concept of local governments making their own decisions without state dictation.
On the other hand, well, the Legislature approved that bill by overwhelming majorities and he doesn’t like the idea of government telling business what their personnel policies should be. A fine muddled middle again, in tune with what we all collectively think.

Leave a Reply