When Lamar Alexander jumped into the Senate campaign last year in the unexpected race to replace Fred Thompson, he declared himself to be a different person from the one whose ambitions raged across the state’s political landscape for two decades.
Now that we’ve had a chance to see him in office for eight months as Tennessee’s junior senator, it’s obvious that the statement was true in some ways and untrue in others. The happy news is that the best of the Old Lamar is still around; the other part of the good news is that when he said he’d become a new man, it didn’t mean he’d become a modern Tom DeLay Republican.
When he avowed himself a new man, Alexander meant that, now that he was past 60 with a couple of unhappy presidential campaigns behind him, he was willing to play a supporting role in the clubby, team-focused environment of the legislative branch.
But there were a lot of other things going onlike the way politics had gotten a lot uglier since Alexander last won an election in 1982. Alexander had honed his act in the post-Watergate era, when the bulk of rank-and-file voters distrusted politicians and just wanted people who seemed honest and focused on getting the job done.
That, of course, is what most voters still want, but over the Reagan and Clinton eras, we’ve picked up rancorous poles on the left and the right that drown out most of the political debate. And about the only thing liberals and conservatives can agree on is their disdain for moderates.
So the question was raised about Alexanderhow much was he willing to bow down to the right to stay in the game?
The two statewide Republican primaries last year marked an interestingalthough inconclusivetest of where the state party currently stands. Both the Senate and gubernatorial primaries featured showdowns between candidates from the party’s moderate wing and its conservative wing. The outcome in the primary was inconclusive, both because the two races split and because the two winners started with substantial advantages over the losers.
To win his race, Alexander did what he had to in the primaryembrace right-wing social issues with a kind of yeah-whatever, distracted wink. Come the general election, he was his old self againforgetting the social causes and finding ways to take the edge off some of his conservative positions by offering a little accommodation.
What he demonstrated on the campaign trail was that he still understood what most voters wantedpoliticians who would leave voters alone and try and do a conscientious job without getting caught up in the enthusiasms of the extremes. But once he headed off to Washington, the question was whether he would get swept up in the growing nastiness of the place and whether he was going to be his own man.
His first days in Washington give some good signs that he doesn’t plan to spend his declining political years as a right-wing stooge or total administration toady. On the other hand, he’s still a Republican.
Alexander has gotten his toughest test of conscience on clean-air proposals, where he made his first significant break with the administration of President George W. Bush. The Bush administration’s Clear Skies legislation has been widely criticized by environmentalists and moderates alike as a flimsy cave-in to business lobbyists. On this one, Alexander has stepped tentatively into the fray, calling the Bush bill a “good start [that] does not go far enough.” His specific complaints include provisions that would prevent Tennessee from suing other states to make them stop sending toxic clouds wafting over the Volunteer State and that would prevent the National Park Service from weighing in on pollution sources that are making the Great Smoky Mountains even smokier.
But rather than reveal himself as a total wild man, he’s also refrained from backing Democratic alternatives, signing on instead with a moderate Republican alternative. It’s the classic Lamar waymoderate, safe, perhaps even sensible.
He’s also broken with the party line in backing legislation to roll back the loosening of FCC rules on media consolidation, and criticized the Bush administration for its imposition of steel tariffs a year ago. The latter was a similarly interesting bit of Alexander statesmanship. Free trade has always been an article of faith in the Republican Party, and last year’s decision by the Bush administration was a transparent bit of election-year pandering to shore up the GOP in several key industrial states. In carefully faulting the administration for one of its most obviously cynical moves, Alexander was letting the administration know he was not a total lackeyalthough it may just reflect the fact that he comes from an auto-making and not a steel-making state.
In addition, he stood quietly by the administration in voting against a successful Senate amendment to block revisions to overtime regulations that opponents say would cost eight million workers their overtime benefits. Supporting the amendment would have given Alexander a chance to improve his relations with labor at little real cost since the amendment was set to pass anyway.
To be sure, Alexander has also busied himself with the usual silly business of the politician, working for narrow local issues and locking down congressional honors for a couple of noteworthy (and also dead) black athletesJackie Robinson and Wilma Rudolph. How convenient that in addition to being a civil rights icon, Robinson was also a Republican.
He’s also out front on a bill to write into law the traditional oath of allegiance given at citizenship ceremonies. Immigration and Naturalization Service bureaucrats have proposed replacing the traditional oath with one reflecting more modern language, and conservatives have reacted like some Episcopalians in 1979 to the proposed replacement of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.
Like the liturgical reactionaries, Alexander says he likes the old oath specifically because it sounds like it was written in the 18th century.
Alexander is likely to continue representing Tennessee in the Senate as long as he wantsand since he’s not likely to get many offers to replace Sam Waterston, that could be a significant time. He may still see himself as someone who should be president, but, unlike most of his Senate colleagues, he’s no longer under the illusion that he could be president. That may be good news for the rest of us.
I have said several times in the past "I wish I could do a TED…
Read this instead: "But you shouldn’t remember him as a saint. Bishop Tutu didn’t think…
There has got to be something to trace her last steps. Yes it happened back…
"Read the whole piece here." A lengthy article about snark and smarm and whether or…