The white-hot fury that erupted late last week with “InsureGate” is starting to settle down, but the resentment it left behind is very real and will likely last for a long time.
Typically, the news media missed the real story. They think the whole thing was about petulant legislators upset with the press and trying to keep their personal insurance policy information a secret. While there was undoubtedly some discomfort at being singled out for a benefit that nearly 300,000 other state employees have received for years with recrimination, the news hounds totally missed or totally ignored what the real anger was about.
Rocky Top’s tipline (firstname.lastname@example.org) lit up like a frat boy’s nose on a Saturday night with numerous comments from legislators and staff. But the anger wasn’t at the press, who they viewed as merely a side player in the controversy. No, their fury was directed almost exclusively towards the Haslam administration, who they viewed as the real culprit. To a person they see the governor and his staff as intentionally trying to embarrass the legislature in retribution for not only InsureTN, but a host of other administration defeats, slights and embarrassments the last several months, such as the recent Chattanooga Times Free Press editorial (see: “More Mush from the Wimp”).
To say that among the GOP caucus there is a seething hatred for the administration this morning is a gross understatement.
There is also deep anger with the leadership, particularly in the House, for allowing these attacks on members to continue while they (the leadership) seem more concerned about covering the butt of a governor who is seen as the source of the attacks. In particular, the rank-and-fill are livid that the governor’s office continues to “step in it” then runs to the leadership to get their help scraping it off their shoes.
The “emergency” caucus conference call that hurriedly took place on Friday just made matters worse. The call led off with Harwell making the pitch, McCormick trying to explain his statement from the day before and Casada going from warlord to wimp in less than 24 hours. It was obvious to anyone listening that leadership had huddled with the governor just before the call to plot their strategy, proven by the fact they had Haslam’s “legislators deserve the subsidy” statement in hand and ready to go by the time the call started.
Harwell trotted out the lame excuse that state law said the administration had to give up the info. Never mind that federal HIPPA regulations seemed to contradict that position. There was also suspicion that the governor had quickly gone to his hand-picked Attorney General for some sort of “interim advisory opinion” claiming that the administration’s hands were tied. Some members called bullsh*t on that one, pointing out the administration line of defense did not address the fact that, if true, the administration had purposely left the legislators in the dark for at least three months as to the media’s requests and the administration deliberations on how/if to provide them the info.
For his part, McCormick dissembled into a vague walk back about how he mistakenly “put quote marks” around Cate’s “stepped in it” comment that McCormick had made in an email to caucus members just the day before. McCormick said he was just relaying the impression he got from his conversation with Cate. Whatever, Gerald.
But the award for fastest and most dramatic 180-degree turn went to Casada, who was all fire and brimstone in the Friday morning newspaper:
“Whoever authorized the release of this information showed a clear lack of judgment and, at the very least, should be reprimanded immediately,” Casada said in a statement. “If this is the executive branch’s way of negotiating with the legislative branch about Insure Tennessee, I would encourage them to strongly and swiftly rethink their strategy.”
Just hours later there was Casada encouraging the caucus to take the governor’s “olive branch” and “move on.” Casada engaged in situational posturing while playing both sides against the middle? Wow, what a shock. Not a good “confidence builder” for your colleagues and not a good way to launch your campaign for Speaker.
Son of Advance Tennessee?
The “olive branch” statement trotted out by the governor was seen as so self-serving that it was considered something of a joke and an astonishingly weak attempt to paper over the administration’s latest screw-up. For one thing, if the administration wasn’t behind the hit-job on the legislators, then why did the governor feel compelled to rush out a statement of support? Guilty dog is the one who barks, and all that….
Legislators were of the opinion the administration has been intentionally trying to undermine the legislature for months and that they got caught doing the same thing they got caught doing last August when Haslam and Cate created Advance Tennessee PAC to go after incumbent Republican legislators who didn’t toe their line. That effort blew up in the governor’s face as well.
While leadership probably spent the weekend congratulating themselves on tamping down the crisis, the real damage has already been done and is likely permanent. Among most legislators, Haslam is seen as a “lame duck” only five months into his term. And because of their actions, leadership is increasingly viewed with skepticism from caucus members as well. They may not be lame ducks yet, but many have noticed a pronounced and collective limp.