Who Will Lead Out of the Wreckage?

         Five centuries ago, the Italian essayist Niccolò Machiavelli wrote this about the uses of power: “It is not titles that honor men but men who honor titles.”

         Those words are as true and timely today as they were in 1513. They are especially relevant now to the Casada Crisis that hangs low over Tennessee’s state capitol.

         Casada clamored and clawed to become Speaker of the House – the third position in the line of succession to governor – but somewhere along the way must have forgotten why he wanted it. Maybe all that he ever wanted was the title, the trappings, and the associated patronage.

There was no glimmer that it ever was, for him, about high policy but only low politics. Clearly it wasn’t about respecting the memory and service of his honorable predecessors, both Republican and Democratic, from Ned McWherter to Beth Harwell. They honored their titles, not the other way round.

         Speaking of McWherter. In my own reading of Tennessee political history over the past half-century, Casada’s record of manipulation and of tolerating the wrong things is the most significant episode since the Blanton ouster of 1979. True, there have been other scandals and corruptions between Blanton and Casada’s, some that the FBI gave code names. But at the end of the day the Operations ‘Rocky Top’ and ‘Tennessee Waltz’ were only about petty bribes.

         Casada’s case now, like Blanton’s, has been mostly about abuses of power by an entitled one who enabled it and failed to correct it. How the Blanton case ended, so abruptly with the early swearing in of Gov. Lamar Alexander, was less about Bad Guys Doing Wrong than about Good Guys Doing Right. The good guys then were the senior leaders of the state legislature, most of them Democrats in that moment, putting the end to low behavior by a governor of their own party and in a way that had never been done before.

         Most times, tradition is a good and grounding thing. It anchors us. Other times, like now with the speakership stalemate (or gridlock, call it what you like) that Casada has left behind, not so much. Tradition and proper order are the things that have been violated now. It’s in this context that those now calling for Gov. Bill Lee to step in are making a good point. No, that would not be a traditional step, but this isn’t a normal time. In fact, this present time is quite extraordinary.

Frankly I cannot imagine any of our former governors who followed Blanton letting this unusual sort of slippage persist much longer. Governor Lee’s opportunity now is to create a path forward for a House that is otherwise unable to heal its own wreckage. He could even do it very privately, letting the results unfold in the public eye. But this essential corrective will not be easy, and it won’t be accomplished without much boldness, skill, selflessness, and wisdom.

This is also not about party politics anymore. It’s about responsible governance. Think what you will of the fact we have a GOP supermajority in the Tennessee General Assembly, but it is what we have now. Leaving that rudderless group unaided in this unusual moment helps nothing and nobody.