U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann is not planting his presidential flag with the campaign of billionaire businessman Donald Trump, but he understands Trump's appeal.
Voters "see him as real," the 3rd District congressional representative told Times Free Press editors and reporters Monday. "They see him as a straight shooter. He's not dependent on donors and lobbyists."
No, Trump's money and his television presence have bought him the publicity and cover to say whatever's on mind, although, as he's proven, that may not always be a good thing.
His statements are not always politically correct, either, but that's part of what people appreciate. They're tired of candidates who pander only to specific groups or change their message — and sometimes their accent — depending on the audience.
The public is sick of candidates who tiptoe around the truth because they fear antagonizing some portion of the electorate. They want their potential nominees to tackle the big topics and not talk in platitudes that are soothing and palatable to the largest segment of the voting population.
"A lot of people," Fleischmann said, "think they don't have a voice." Their "problems can't be glossed over with simple phrases."
Many people, just in the last six years, have seen their worlds turned upside down. They've lost jobs or money in the Great Recession. They've lost their doctor and their insurance plans due to the Affordable Care Act, and they've seen the sanctity of marriage as one man and one woman turned away by the Supreme Court.
Plain talk is why even Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, has resonated, Fleischmann said. The "socialist" label that Sanders proudly wears "used to be a nonstarter" with the U.S. electorate, he said.
But "he's saying things most conventional candidates don't say," he said.
The third-term congressman said Republicans must not only shoot straight with the electorate but "reach out [to women and minorities] in a way that resounds."
Younger people are no different, Fleischmann said.
Millennials, people born between the early 1980s and early 2000s, see a country with problems in need of solutions, the Chattanooga attorney said.
"Fix it" is their resounding message to him specifically and Congress in general, he said.
In general, "tell people you like them," Fleischmann said. "Make sure they know they're welcome in our party. It's [all in] how you explain it."
That brings us around again to Trump.
When he talks plainly about immigration, he wins over average Joes who believe their jobs are in danger of being taken by illegal immigrants and who know their taxpayer dollars are paying for benefits for illegal immigrants. But he loses the support of Hispanic voters who have some sympathy for those who have come here illegally.
When he talks plainly about Sen. John McCain, he wins over voters who didn't believe the Arizona senator was a very good candidate when he was the 2008 GOP presidential nominee. But when he says McCain, who suffered permanent disabilities after spending five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison, was no war hero, he loses the support of many others.
Trump, amazingly, is currently at the top of some presidential polls. Pundits who thought he would have fallen off his perch by now underestimated where money and name-recognition and a life lived in a tabloid culture will take a candidate who, at least, speaks to what people are thinking.
How long he polls well may be a measure of how many more gaffes — like the recent one about McCain — come out of his mouth and how well the rest of GOP candidates pick up his penchant for blunt words to the American people.
For Fleischmann, for now, that candidate is former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. The ex-Baptist preacher's anti-abortion, pro-family, pro-gun, pro-military stance matches that of the Chattanooga congressman, who proudly told editors and reporters he didn't smoke, drink or take drugs — "even an aspirin."
Huckabee also appeared in media advertising endorsing Fleischmann in the midst of his bruising primary campaign with Weston Wamp in 2014.
However, if the former Arkansas governor, who previously ran for the nomination in 2008, doesn't gain traction, Fleischmann said "we have a deep bench."
Somewhere on the bench, we hope, is a candidate who has that combination of plain speaking, family values, a desire to reach out to the entire electorate and a willingness to undo the excesses of the last six years. That is the candidate Republicans should nominate.