Rep. Zach Wamp has always been a social conservative. But he used to talk more about the technology corridor he wanted to build in East Tennessee to attract jobs than about than anything else. Since he became a candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, that's changed dramatically. Now, his themes at campaign outings and barbecues are mainly political red meat, marinated in guns, God and defense of states' rights to keep the federal government at bay.
It wouldn't be a stretch for a politically attuned listener to imagine Mr. Wamp has begun channeling old-style Dixiecrats. His fiery defense of states' rights recalls strategies of such race-baiting legends as former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett and South Carolina's governor and senator Strom Thurmond, who once led the segregationist States Rights Democratic Party as the Dixiecrats' presidential candidate.
Not that Mr. Wamp is literally rehashing the racist positions of these governors. He is not advocating actions akin to those, say, of former Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, whose 1957 challenge of the court-ordered integration of Little Rock's Central High School caused then-President Eisenhower to send in the 101st Airborne to escort the first black students; or Gov. Wallace, who in 1963 stood on the steps of the University of Alabama's Foster Auditorium in a grandstand attempt to turn back federal authorities who demanded he step aside to allow the court-ordered desegregation of the university.
But he need not say anything racist to strike the "states rights" chords that still resonate with so many of the older right-wing of his party in the run-up to the GOP primary 11 months from now. It's enough when he invokes a stiff defense of states' rights, as he did as his annual political rally-barbecue Monday at former County Commissioner Harold Coker's farm:
"Part of the reason I'm running for governor is because states are going to need to declare their sovereignty, stick together with other governors to protect freedom in our states, and be willing to meet the federal government at the state line, whether it's environmental regulations, the speed limit, gun laws, whatever the federal government's doing that's onerous."
He's been doing the state's rights shtick, and pairing gun rights with Christian initiatives elsewhere. The Tennessee Journal, a Nashville-based insider's guide to Tennessee politics, government and business, noted that Mr. Wamp, at a recent forum in Franklin, was asked what he would do with the controversial underground entertainment complex at the governor's mansion. Mr. Wamp quipped that that "bunker" would make a nice firing range.
Speaking to Nashville's Rotary Club a few days later, he said he would use the governor's "bully pulpit" to press for more early childhood reading programs -- provided the funding comes from churches, businesses and foundations. It's fair to conclude that he won't burden taxpayers to fund such an important state goal to ensure our children's readiness for global economic competition.
Mr. Wamp, to be sure, is not afraid to hypocritically straddle the line on other important issues. He voted against and has harshly deplored the economic stimulus plan that President Bush and Democrats pushed through Congress. He's say it's virtually worthless in terms of creating jobs and helping states.
But he's managed to secure roughly $1 billion in stimulus money for some 21 projects in his Third congressional district. His biggest stimulus coup was $842 million for Anderson County, mainly for Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Other stimulus money is allocated to 13 projects for Hamilton County valued at $102 million; 10 projects valued at $9.3 million in Bradley County; five projects valued at $29.3 million in Polk County, among other smaller counties.
In all, he gathered a whopping 20 percent of the $5.2 billion in stimulus money granted to Tennessee in the stimulus package, but he still likes to rail against it.
He's also willing to lay down for the party line on the thoroughly debunked myth of "death panels" in a health care reform bill. The pertinent language, added at the request of Georgia's Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson, would have merely allowed Medicare to reimburse seniors for a voluntary meeting with a doctor every five years to discuss treatment options for potentially terminal conditions.
Asked at the Rotary meeting to refute to the false "death panel" scare tactics that some Republicans have repeated, Rep. Wamp waffled big-time: "You decide what that means," he said. "People take the statute and interpret it how they choose, and if that's the case I don't know why it wouldn't just come out of the legislation." Minutes later, a Commercial Appeal reporter wrote, he said he was concerned the provision could lead to death panels "in some circumstances. I don't know."
Given the budget crisis that is certain to haunt Tennessee's educational and public service programs for several more years, we would have hoped for a more astute and thoughtful platform from Mr. Wamp. If his strategy is to pander to his party's right wing, and ignore the real issues, it's hard to see why he should be governor.