Commentary: Let it Bleed

President Donald Trump speaks at a Wisconsin rally in January. (Joshua Lott, Getty Images)
President Donald Trump speaks at a Wisconsin rally in January. (Joshua Lott, Getty Images)

Since the 2016 campaign, MAGAheads at Trump rallies have been regaled with the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” as Dear Leader’s post-bloviation anthem (over the Stones’ objections, but that’s how it goes). Whatever the song’s merits as a musical coda for the assembled agitations of red-capped masses, it turns out to work pretty well as a theme song for Republican control of the levers of public policy here in Tennessee. The TN GOP motto: You know you want it, we know you want it, but sorry, no, you can’t have it. 

Let’s contemplate two painfully current examples in the time of the coronavirus.

Bruce Barry. (Photo by Dennis Wile.)
Bruce Barry. (Photo by Dennis Wile.)

The first is that oldie but goodie Medicaid expansion — contested terrain ever since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 allowed states to opt out of the Medicaid part of Obamacare. In one of the greatest collective examples of cutting off noses to spite faces, many red states including Tennessee prioritized disdain for all things Obama over a direly needed extension of health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of the uninsured at minimal cost to the state’s coffers. 

Medicaid expansion is one of those things so obviously worth doing that public support for it substantially blurs the usual partisan lines that divide us. A Mason-Dixon poll of registered Tennessee voters in 2018 found more than 2-to-1 support, spanning just about every imaginable demographic: men are for it, women are for it; older people are for it, younger people are for it; white voters are for it, black voters are for it; East Tennesseans are for it, Middle Tennesseans are for it, West Tennesseans are for it; Democrats are for it, Republicans are for it, Independents are for it. 

This depth of support is the kind of thing that can lead citizens to rise up and force lawmakers to act. Some red-state denizens have done just that through successful ballot initiatives (Nebraska, Idaho, Utah, Maine, with Missouri upcoming), but Tennesseans don’t have that option under the state constitution. Instead we’re stuck with a governor and a legislature that won’t even ponder it, and so we remain one of what is now only a dozen or so states that haven’t yet expanded. And with COVID-19 shining a bright light on Tennessee’s tragically impaired healthcare system, we find Gov. Bill Lee doubling down on his opposition

You know you want it, we know you want it, but you can’t have it.

This depth of support is the kind of thing that can lead citizens to rise up and force lawmakers to act.

Second example: voting by mail, another one of those obviously good ideas that Tennessee Republican leaders and lawmakers can’t seem to find their way to grasp. Late last week Tennessee’s Secretary of State extended absentee ballot eligibility to voters age 60 and up, which is helpful but inadequate. COVID-19, of course, is the catalyst for accelerating nationwide interest in letting everyone have the option of casting a ballot in 2020 without visiting a polling place.

Nationally, support for it is up there in gun-background-check territory (don’t get me started on that), with a Pew poll last month finding 70% in favor of allowing all to vote-by-mail, and a large YouGov survey in March showing clear support across all age, race, gender, education, income, party, and ideology categories. Some Republicans are a bit less enthusiastic (though still in favor), perhaps because they think vote-by-mail expands turnout favoring Democrats — which by the way is demonstrably false. Some contend that vote-by-mail heightens the risk of election fraud — also demonstrably false, based on the actual experience of actual states that have been conducting actual elections through the mail for years.

The YouGov poll gives us a snapshot of Tennessee opinion on vote-by-mail: not quite as enthusiastic as states already doing it, but right there with other states, blue and red, favoring it substantially. And yet, in this landscape of an obviously sound idea gone viral (yes, intended), we have an unwilling legislature, which rejected a measure earlier this spring, and crickets from our hapless governor, even as several states — many of them red — are moving actively to loosen restrictions on mailed ballots.  

You know you want it, we know you want it, but you can’t have it.

Conservative critic Armond Wright writing in the National Review called “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” a “profoundly pragmatic” anthem for the time of Trump, who “lets the song speak the basic wisdom of an electorate that had moved past the false claims of political partisanship and beheld a fresh candidate whose perspective answered their frustrations.” Highfalutin stuff. Actually the wisdom the song speaks is that in Tennessee’s Trumpian GOP you can’t get what you want, even if it’s an unambiguously good thing that most everybody wants, and that many in other less ideologically imprisoned red states are actually getting. Shorter version, courtesy of the song’s album title: Let it bleed.