Bredesen, Blackburn square off in Cumberland debate

Matt Masters • Sep 26, 2018 at 6:08 PM

Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn and former Gov. Phil Bredesen faced off in a debate Tuesday night at the Cumberland University’s Baird Chapel where they debated the issues that will face Tennessee in the U.S. Senate.

The debate began with the first question to Blackburn who was asked what she thought was the single-most important issue facing Tennesseans and what she would do to address that issue.

Blackburn jumped right into tax cuts, jobs and the economy as her focus for the most important issues facing Tennesseans, citing economic growth in Scott County. She closed her opening statement with, “A healthy economy [is] good for all Tennesseans.”

Bredesen said the dysfunction in Washington D.C. is the most pressing issue, and noted many things that could help Tennesseans, specifically in terms of economics, are stalled in Washington due to partisan politics and a lack of leadership.

“This idea that somehow your party affiliation, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, ought to determine everything about how you think about things and how you approach things is one of the things that’s crazily wrong with it,” Bredesen said.

“You’ve heard a lot recently in this campaign about me, about these crazy ideas of how if somehow I’m elected and go to Washington that suddenly I’m going to turn my back on a whole lifetime of thinking for myself and being independent and suddenly become some kind of a political lackey. That’s not going to happen for a bunch of reasons.

“One of which is that I think a lot of the problem in Washington is with the leadership that we have there now. Whether it be Ryan or Pelosi or McConnell or Schumer, they’re not doing the job. We need to get new leadership, and I can tell you right now that if I’m elected, and when I’m elected and go to Washington, I am not going to be voting for Chuck Schumer.”

Blackburn latched onto Bredesen’s claim as an independent thinker and hammered home her claims that Bredesen would only support a Democratic agenda throughout the debate. She said the Democratic New York senator’s name 12 times throughout the debate, said Bredesen and his campaign was “bought and paid for” by Schumer six times throughout the debate.

“Phil had a choice. He could have run as a Republican or an independent, probably didn’t want to do that. He’s running as a Democrat so he will be with Chuck Schumer if he were to go to Washington,” Blackburn said. “He will vote with Chuck Schumer because his vote is already bought and paid for. His campaign is bought and paid for by Chuck Schumer.”

Bredesen made no mention of the ongoing support of Blackburn by President Donald Trump, who has campaigned at fundraisers for her in Tennessee several times, with the next rally scheduled for Oct. 1 in Johnson City.

Tax cuts and the national debt

Bredesen said the tax cut program under Trump increased the national debt by more than $1 trillion dollars. He also talked about keeping a hold on spending constant without trying to reduce it and letting revenues grow into that in five or six years to get the number to zero.

Bredesen also talked about his record with a reduction in the state budget as governor during the Great Recession, where he said one of the toughest things he had to do was to cut expenses 9 percent across the board, with the exception of primary education.

He said it takes action, not just tough talk, to actually make change.

He touted his experience making tough decisions about budgets as a businessman, mayor and governor and said the budget can be balanced without tax increases.

Blackburn laid out three points to tackle the national debt, which included introducing a balanced budget amendment to balance the budget without a tax increase, spending reductions and working to continue to grow the economy.

She said the economy is strong in Tennessee with low jobless claims and a high median income.

She touted her opposition to an income tax in Tennessee and said Bredesen would vote to take away tax cuts put in place under Trump.

Health care

Blackburn said the Affordable Care Act doesn’t work and claimed Bredesen supports a single-payer form of health care and would support a government-provided health care system, if elected. She also said a government health care system would take “half” of Tennessean’s taxes to pay for such a program.

Bredesen said he did not support the Affordable Care Act and President Barack Obama got mad at him for not supporting it, but when it was passed into law, he chose to support it and try and make it work for all Americans.

Bredesen said the efforts to undermine and “sabotage” the law was “cruel” as it only hurt people the law, however flawed it was, was meant to help.

“There’s something wrong, and kind of what’s wrong with Congress in a microcosm, is you’re sitting up there for the last 16 years, and you’ve had a wonderful health care system fully paid by the federal government, which costs you nothing or very little, and in the meantime you’re voting to take health care away from 250,000 Tennesseans with no idea about how to replace it with something else, for what are really purely political reasons. It makes no sense. It’s nonsense,” Bredesen said.

Blackburn issued a rebuttal and said, “We have Tennesseans in 16 counties that cannot even buy something that is ACA-compliant, so of course, what would be most beneficial to Tennesseans is to get the Affordable Care Act off the book and to open up the health insurance marketplace, to make certain that we have a cross-state line purchase of health insurance so that individuals can buy a product that suites their needs at a price that they can afford,” Blackburn said. “That is what individuals want.”

Rural hospital closings

Bredesen said access and the struggle to get doctors to relocate is the biggest issues that face rural hospitals.

He said the future of rural hospitals would probably be based on some sort of association with urban hospitals where they could work together to provide care. He also talked about addressing issues with reimbursement polices and the Department of Health and Human Services.

Blackburn said rural hospitals and rural America were forgotten during the Obama era and tried to tie Bredesen to Hillary Clinton in the passing of TennCare.

She said what is needed is access to 21st century health care concepts, such as telemedicine and community health centers, along with the ability for rural hospitals to treat triage patients and to make sure they have freestanding emergency rooms.

Bredesen gave a rebuttal and said TennCare’s inception had nothing to do with Hillary Clinton and TennCare helped to keep rural hospitals open. He believes the state should have gone ahead with Medicaid expansion. Bredesen said he offered some solutions to how to structure Medicaid to avoid some of the problems seen with TennCare.

Opioid epidemic

Blackburn said more resources are needed for local law enforcement to combat what she said are the biggest issues that face Tennessee communities – fentanyl and heroin. She said these are mainly coming into the U.S. from Mexico and Bredesen is against securing the southern U.S. border.

Bredesen said one of the reasons the opioid crisis is a significant topic in this election is because Blackburn has been “one of the significant enablers” of the crisis. He said when Blackburn went to Congress, she buddied up to big pharma and passed a “stealth bill” that took much of the law enforcement abilities away from the Drug Enforcement Agency, citing a 60 Minutes episode that investigated the issue. Bredesen said he wanted to undo Blackburn’s actions and give law enforcement all the tools and abilities to combat opioids.

Blackburn issued a rebuttal and said Bredesen’s claims were false, and she said the bill was a three-year bipartisan effort. She also said limits on prescriptions should be imposed, along with education on the issues.


Bredesen said he thinks that the best thing to do is to convince Trump to back off of the strategy of a trade war and tariffs. He said the tariffs are a job-killing tax on Tennessee businesses, and while there are real issues to address, such as the theft of intellectual property by China, the U.S. must deal with them on a one-on-one basis and not with one sweeping action.

“It makes no sense to solve problems with China by slapping tariffs on Canada,” Bredesen said.

Bredesen also said automotive company officials have told him they are worried, and he trusts local companies on the issue more than the rhetoric coming out of Washington.

Blackburn said she’s not a fan of tariffs, but “if we’re in a trade war that we should win that war.”

She said tariffs are not good for Tennessee, especially farmers, but claimed the U.S.’s trade issues are due to Obama and President Bill Clinton with NAFTA, whom she tied Bredesen to, saying those polices drove jobs to Mexico.

Trump: One policy supported and opposed

Blackburn said she is against tariffs and increased federal spending but agreed with Trump’s foreign policy with the war on ISIS, his focus on increased military funding and efforts in “draining the swamp.”

Bredesen said he agreed with Trump’s handling of North Korea in a different way after decades of failed relations and with Trump’s work to cut back regulations. But he noted he doesn’t always agree with cutting back on some regulations or the tactics used to do so.

He also said he is against tariffs and is concerned on the divide between longtime allies in the European Union and with Mexico and Canada while the administration seems to be warming up to Russia.

Kavanaugh: Vote yes or no?

Bredesen said Democrats were immediately against the nomination while Blackburn and other Republicans were immediately for the nomination as if a hearing wasn’t even needed.

“What is going on now with the Kavanaugh nomination in Washington, on the part of both parties, just disgusts me. There’s no other word for it,” Bredesen said. “They’ve taken what is an important and serious obligation under the Constitution of the U.S. Senate and turned it into a circus.

“I think we need to listen to everyone, including Dr. Ford [Brett Kavanaugh’s accuser of sexual assault] and when that is over, we need to make a decision based on their competence, based on their ethics, based on their temperament, and that’s what I intend to do.”

Blackburn called Kavanaugh qualified and said he has served well on the federal court.

“I think every woman who makes an accusation should be heard,” Blackburn said, “and we know that the hearing is set for Thursday, and we now know that the vote to move Judge Kavanaugh out of committee is going to take place on Friday. If I were in the Senate, I would vote yes to move Judge Kavanaugh to the Senate and to send that vote to the floor. I would vote to confirm him.

“What we see taking place right now is a PR stunt by the Democrats. It is character assassination, and this is something that is dirty politics at its worst.”

Blackburn also said when Bredesen was governor, sexual harassment claims doubled in one year and the Bredesen administration destroyed some of the evidence.

She then said the excuse given by Bredesen was that these things happen when men and women are in a workplace together, saying it was an inappropriate response.

Bredesen issued a rebuttal where he said Blackburn offered a mischaracterization of the facts. He said he has a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment, and he encouraged people to come forward with cases of harassment, and he was glad that those people came forward, thereby raising the number of reported cases.

Bredesen also said any suppression of information was to protect the identities of those who chose to come forward so they were publicly identified and publicized.


Elizabeth Ramirez, a Cumberland student who was born in Mexico and is a DREAMer, submitted a question about what should happen to people brought to the U.S. as children.

Blackburn said Democrats did not accept a deal put forth by Republicans to offer a pathway to citizenship, and there should be a path to legalization for DREAMers while securing the boarder, getting rid of sanctuary cities, ending visa diversity lotteries and ending chain migration.

Bredesen said the U.S. is entitled to secure borders as a part of national security and policy, but the U.S. has a moral obligation to DREAMers. He said it’s immoral to leave them hanging in a legal limbo and the country needs to get beyond the issue, blaming both parties for not coming together and finding a solution.

He also said when he was governor, Tennessee was one of the first states to send troops to the Arizona border, and he also reversed a policy to give a driver’s license to everyone regardless of legal status.


Bredesen said it’s fundamentally a political decision made by the president, and he supports whoever is president can set the standards, but he feels personally the U.S. should be more generous toward refugees.

He said the U.S. has to separate refugees from immigration and specifically illegal immigration, and he was committed to support federal programs for refugees when they come to Tennessee.

Blackburn talked about having close ties with the Kurdish community in Middle Tennessee and said the U.S. needs to prioritize those refugees who have worked with the U.S. military and State Department.

Gun control

Blackburn said the Democrats in Washington are set on repealing the Second Amendment, calling it a “paramount” agenda item. She cited Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was confirmed during the Obama era, who said she doesn’t believe that owning a gun is a fundamental right. Blackburn also said Bredesen would fall in line with his party on the issue.

Blackburn also said she is endorsed by the National Rifle Association with an A rating while Bredesen has a D rating, and she supports red-flag mental health checks in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.

Bredesen said he is and has been a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, and he’s been a gun owner his entire life.

“One of the ways that you preserve those rights is to put reasonable rules in place so that they’re exercised in a reasonable way. I value our First Amendment rights, but you can’t yell, ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, and I think that there are some reasonable things that we can do when it comes to guns,” Bredesen said.

He said he believes in background checks for all gun sales, including closing the “gun show loophole.” Bredesen also said proper funding needs to be given to NICS and wants to see a judicial process that can stop those who are clearly unable to responsibly own a gun to be forbidden from doing so. He said it would have been significant to stop two of the last school shootings.


Bredesen said he wants to get specific about infrastructure projects to get support and work done.

Blackburn said there is plenty of roadwork that needs to be done.

“When Phil was governor, he drained the road fund and used that to pay for other programs in the general fund, and so if you’re sitting in traffic a lot of times, this is the reason, because there was not a lot of road funds that were used, and there were not a lot of projects that were started during that period of time,” Blackburn said.

Blackburn said the key to federal highway trust funds is getting rid of “waste, fraud and abuse” and make sure that the money is used for what it was intended.

“Get rid of all the enhancements, bike paths, walking trails or passive parks. Put that money into roads and bridges,” Blackburn said. “When you talk to our farmers, one of the things that they will tell you is that they need to know that they are going to have dependable infrastructure.”

Bredesen offered a rebuttal when he said, “When I came in as governor, we had an enormous financial problem that I had to deal with, and I dealt with it by asking every department in state government, except for K-12 education, to take a 9 percent across-the-board cut. It was extraordinarily painful.

“We did what we had to do, and I make no apologies for that. If Congress would start doing the same thing from time to time we’d have a better country.”

The press

Blackburn said the First Amendment and a free press is vitally important to the U.S., but that she takes issue with certain social media outlets who have censored and blocked certain views or search results.

“I do not think that the press is the enemy of the people,” Blackburn said.

Bredesen talked about being available to the press throughout his political career, but the relationship with social media isn’t fully understood, and ways need to be found to find ways to come together and make sure the platforms aren’t used to harm democracy, citing the Russia investigation and Russian state influence in the 2016 presidential election.

“Of course, the press is not the enemy of the people,” Bredesen said. “They’re not your friends. They’re not your enemies. They’re just doing a different job than yours.”

The U.S. and the world stage

Bredesen said he wants to see the U.S. continue to engage with the world through it’s relationships with allies and remaining in NATO, and to continue to fill the role of world leader as long as possible. He also said he is completely committed to strengthen the military and support it in its needs

Blackburn said NATO is an important group, but the Obama administration didn’t know who were allies and enemies. She talked about the value of Fort Campbell and said she supports the fight against ISIS in Syria. She also called Iran, Russia, Syria, North Korea and China the “new axis of evil.”

Finally, the candidates were asked about one thing they regret they have supported or didn’t support.

Blackburn said she would have put more energy into across-the-board spending cuts she supports every year, and it’s immoral to pass on the debt to future generations.

Bredesen said when he was governor, he focused too much on college readiness and should have focused on other opportunities after graduation.

“I am running to take your Tennessee values to Washington D.C.,” Blackburn said in her closing statement. “Phil said that he is running to end the dry spell for Democrats in Tennessee. He said that he thinks that D.C. listens too much to voters. I think that D.C. needs to listen more to voters, that’s what draining the swamp is about.”

“I still have a high school civics view of my country,” Bredesen said in his closing statement. “I think we have a brilliantly designed government. I think our government can be an enormous force for good in our country and protecting its people and its land, and I have to say that it pains me so much with what has happened over the past decade or two with everything becoming a partisan issue with the inability to move things forward and get things done. And it’s just become a government of people standing on opposite sides of the room and shouting at each other and not making any progress.

“People certainly are going to have a choice, and if what the people of Tennessee want more of that sort of hard-nosed, partisan politics, take no prisoners, draw lines in the sand, make no compromises then I’m not your guy. There’s another person on this stage who has been in Washington for the last 16 years and shows it and is very steeped in that political philosophy and, frankly, is very good at it.

“But if what you want is someone who brings some experience from the business world, brings some experience from being mayor and governor, and in particular brings an attitude of wanting to start making things happen, of getting things done, of pushing the partisanship down and trying to actually solve some problems, that’s what I want to do. That’s what my whole life has been about. If that’s what people want, I would like to represent them in Washington, and I’m applying for the job.”

In a post-debate session with reporters, Blackburn doubled down on the claim Bredesen would fall in line with his party.

Bredesen reiterated to reporters what he said in his opening statement during the debate that new leadership was needed in Washington in both political parties. He said all the attention Blackburn gave to Schumer didn’t make sense to him, and he would rather debate the issues that face Tennesseans.

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