NASHVILLE — Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen says he's not running as an "anti-Trump" candidate and that if elected to the U.S. Senate, he expects to treat President Donald Trump and fellow Republicans in the Senate in much the same fashion he did President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats.
That is by supporting their policies when he agrees and opposing them when he doesn't.
"If they're doing something that you think is good for Tennessee and good for the country, you should be for it, whether or not you're of the same party," Bredesen said in a wide-ranging interview Friday.
The normally reserved Bredesen said he also would be able to distinguish Trump's policies from the president's style, noting, "obviously, there are things about his style that are so dramatically different from mine that it'd be odd if I loved them."
Still, the man who won a reputation as a pragmatic moderate Democrat during his two terms as Tennessee governor said "my basic attitude toward these things is, you know, whoever is president puts things on the table. I think anybody has got to separate the speaker from the content. I would treat him and [GOP] senators in the same way as I would have treated Obama."polls here 4179
As governor during two terms stretching from 2003 to 2011, Bredesen famously criticized Obama and congressional Democrats' mandatory expansion of state Medicaid programs such as TennCare in the federal Affordable Care Act, calling it the "mother of all unfunded mandates."
"I was in the same party as Obama and made no bones about my feelings about the Affordable Care Act, which were not positive," Bredesen said.
After Bredesen left office, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the provision unconstitutional and said it had to be voluntary. The former governor then became far more favorable toward the law and he said Thursday he hopes to work on a bipartisan basis with senators to fix it rather than repeal it as the GOP has so far unsuccessfully tried to do.
"You can't treat people that way, you just can't treat American citizens that way in passing some law and telling them to depend on it and then this change of administrations here, you're pulling the rug out from underneath," he said.
Bredesen officially announced his bid Thursday, weeks after Republican U.S. Sen. Bob Corker announced he would not seek a third term. Corker had been critical of Trump and has become increasingly so since the announcement.
Also seeking the Democratic nomination is Nashville attorney and decorated Iraqi War veteran James Mackler.
U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, of Brentwood, and former U.S. Rep. Stephen Fincher are seeking the Republican nomination.
National Republicans already are on the attack when it comes to Bredesen, and Blackburn's campaign sharply criticized him even before he officially announced, with spokeswoman Andrea Bozek appearing to call Bredesen's age into question, among other things.
"Tennessee families want change, and that is not what 74-year-old Democrat politician Phil Bredesen will bring to the United States Senate," Bozek said.
Bredesen chalked that up to "just standard Washington playbook stuff."
"People are going to judge for themselves during the course of the campaign if they think I'm alert and vigorous and up to do this. But I'm 74, I'm healthy, I go out and run, I work out, my mind is clear. I feel like I got a lot of good years left in me."
He added: "I don't think [age] is bothering anybody. You know, 74 is the new 54."
With Blackburn positioning herself as a Trump loyalist, Bredesen said he has "a very different view of that the last thing the founders intended the Senate to be was foot soldiers for any administration, any president."
Bredesen said "it's about checks and balances, and the system was set up whereby you're supposed to have people in the Senate who think for themselves and act not as a permanent supporter or permanent enemy but as a check and balance on what goes on in the executive branch."
Still, he spoke of his ability to reach across party lines while governor.
"I've always been kind of a bipartisan, for lack of a better word. I mean almost everything I did as governor, we managed to have significant D and R support for. And I don't like this hyperpartisanship. I've never liked political theater, and that's what it's become up there."
A former Nashville mayor who made millions of dollars through a health care company he started decades ago, Bredesen hasn't been shy in the past about spending his own money to fuel his political aspirations.
Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a Vanderbilt University political science professor, said in an interview earlier this week he would be surprised if total expenditures in the Senate race hit $85 million between what candidates raise and national partisan independent expenditure groups spend.
Oppenheimer said that was what was spent in a U.S. Senate contest in Missouri in 2016 and noted Missouri is smaller than Tennessee.
"I really don't want to," Bredesen said when asked if he would dip into his own bank account in the Senate contest. "I think at this point I've earned the ability to be able to raise the money to run a campaign."
During his first term, Bredesen was engulfed in controversy as he slashed 177,000 adults from the state's expanded TennCare health program. Costs had soared and Bredesen said the state had no choice because it threatened to strip money out of other necessary government programs like education.
Affected enrollees and advocates were furious. There were state Capitol protests.
"I'm sure there are still people who are smarting over the TennCare disenrollments and stuff," Bredesen acknowledged when asked if that might dampen some Democrats' enthusiasm.
He added that "all I can do is as best I did at the time is explain to them the rationale, that I spent at least a year trying to keep everybody on the rolls by negotiating some changes in the benefit package."
That "was kind of thwarted" by courts, advocacy groups and a federal agency, said Bredesen, who argued he had little choice but to cut. "All I can say to them is 'Exactly what would you have done when faced with the circumstance?' I mean, you're responsible for the success of the state, there's a lot of other things going on in our state besides health care."
Regarding Democratic rival Mackler, who entered the race before Corker announced he would not run, Bredesen said he has spoken to the attorney, calling him "a good guy."
"I like him," he said. "He's got a great résumé, and I think he's absolutely entitled to stay in the race if he wants to."
Vanderbilt's Oppenheimer said Bredesen "brings certain assets" to a campaign, having run unsuccessfully for governor in 1994 before his first 2002 victory.
That includes experience as an executive, along with being "a fairly non-ideological person" and well known, Oppenheimer said.
"But he has some liabilities too," the professor said. "One, he's been out of office for a while and two, the last time he ran a competitive campaign was in what, 2002? So part of the question is he's been out of public office for a while."
This is a campaign where Bredesen "will have to show he still knows how to ride the 'bicycle.'" Oppenheimer said. "And not only knows how but enjoys doing it."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.