No more Mr. Nice Guy, Governor

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam speaks at the state Capitol in Nashville on April 23, 2015.

"More Mush from the Wimp" was a joke headline that accidentally passed through to publication on just over 160,000 copies of a March 1980 Boston Globe editorial about President Jimmy Carter urging economic self discipline on inflation-weary Americans.

It was an embarrassing newspaper goof, but at the time it seemed to crystallize many Americans' thoughts on a president we all believed was a genuinely good man in a genuinely bad spot.

Now we have Gov. Bill Haslam caught in a similarly "nice guy" predicament with the Tennessee General Assembly -- a solid collection of Snidely Whiplashes.

"Is Gov. Haslam just too much of a nice guy?" asked the headline on an Associated Press story last week about the governor's apparent inability to muster the votes he wants -- even from a legislature with a super majority of his own party.

The answer is maybe. And only maybe because part of the answer is also likely to be our governor's shyness toward any hint of forceful leadership.

Haslam was first publicly dubbed Mr. Nice Guy in a 2014 story by Times Free Press reporter Andy Sher, who noted that the governor "is known to friends and critics as the ever-optimistic Mr. Nice Guy."

Sher was writing about Haslam taking over from "Mr. Attack Dog" Chris Christie as chairman of the Republican Governor's Association.

At that point, Haslam was standing tall against Obamacare and had just swept all 95 counties in his re-election bid against a field of folks most of us had never heard of.

Then Mr. Nice Guy was head-butted back to reality when, in a special legislative session in which he sought approval of his Tennessee version of the Affordable Care Act -- something he said he thought lawmakers expected him to negotiate to cover 280,000 low-income Tennesseans and infuse the state with new and needed health care money. Wrong. State senators and representatives said no and heck no.

Then, adding insult to injury, the lawmakers forced Haslam to reverse his long-held opposition to a bill allowing handgun carry permit holders to take guns in all local parks. The governor who, as Knoxville mayor, had supported a ban on guns in city parks, found himself having to sign a bill that undoes local safety measures. If he vetoed the bill, his fellow Republicans had the votes to override him.

The governor rejects the "too-much-a-nice-guy-to-lead" label.

"At the end of the day we're going to work our hardest to find the very best answer and do everything we can to sell it," Haslam told The Associated Press.

But Democrats may have the real answer. House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh called the governor's failure to veto the guns bill "an absolute failure of leadership." Fitzhugh, of Ripley, Tenn., also has urged Haslam to call repeated special sessions to force lawmakers to reconsider the Insure Tennessee proposal. That hasn't happened, either.

The governor's mild manners seem to be all he is left with as the Republican legislative leaders he needs most -- House Speaker Beth Harwell, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey and Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris -- are pretty much looking the other way.

Haslam told reporters last week that going forward he hopes lawmakers will be persuaded by the strength of his initiatives.

"At the end, you have to remember there's 132 people, all of whom are elected for their own reasons and feel like they should represent their district as they understand it," Haslam said. "And we're going to do our best to keep proposing good policy and see what we can do to get it passed."

It might be that the governor is simply too reasonable, a bit over his head and not particularly well advised by the people around him who did not grow up in the rough and tumble world of Capitol city politics.

We all like nice guys. There aren't enough of them. But right now Tennessee needs someone to kick the not-so-nice guys out of the way.

Please, Governor. Get yourself some steel-toed boots.