When Republicans gained two Senate seats in the November midterms, the leverage occasionally moderate gadflies Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski had over their more conservative and Trumpy colleagues declined accordingly. But adding to Mitch McConnell’s power were the retirement of two senators who had developed a real antipathy to Donald Trump, Arizona’s Jeff Flake and Tennessee’s Bob Corker.
In looking for a possible successor to Flake and Corker as conservatives willing to defy Trump on occasion, speculation has centered on another Tennessean who has now insulated himself from Republican primary blowback by announcing his own retirement in 2020: Lamar Alexander. The Washington Post’s James Hohmann thinks the very veteran Republican pol could have the right stuff to be a rebel himself:
Now that he’s decided not to seek reelection, the former cabinet secretary, governor and presidential candidate has two years to pursue his pragmatic instincts for compromise unencumbered by fear of blowback from grass-roots activists or donors. He can negotiate deals that would be able to pass a Democratic House, especially around health care or education, and possibly even speak out against Trump, who is temperamentally his opposite….
Becoming a lame duck might embolden the 78-year-old to embrace the role of senior statesman. He is perhaps now as well positioned as anyone in the upper chamber to break the fever of tribalism that has infected and diminished what was once the world’s greatest deliberative body.
This ode to Lamar! (the exclamation point is forever attached to his first name after his 1996 presidential campaign used it relentlessly) isn’t just the standard effort to imagine the Senate of yore in which solons from both parties gathered in the cloakroom to govern the nation across party lines. Alexander really is a man from a lost era. He worked in the Nixon White House. His first gubernatorial nomination was in 1974, the Watergate year that handicapped Republican candidates everywhere. After he won the governorship in 1978, he soon became a national bipartisan leader of his fellow chief executive, with a focus on education policy. He served as Poppy Bush’s education secretary back when that job in a GOP administration meant marshaling bipartisan and business support for standards-based reform of public schools rather than subsidization of private schools.
Alexander’s two runs for president (in 1996 and 2000) were bedeviled by bad timing. His first run began as a populist-outsider crusade (his slogan, aimed at a deeply unpopular Democratic-run Congress, was “Cut Their Pay and Send Them Home”), that eventually ran out of steam after his own party won Congress in the 1994 landslide. He finished third in both Iowa and New Hampshire and dropped out. His 2000 campaign never made it to the starting gate after a poor performance in the 1999 Ames Straw Poll.
Soon afterwards, Alexander began his long Senate career by beating a conservative rival in the primary to succeed Fred Thompson and then a relatively popular Democratic congressman. In the Senate he has been a loyal Republican on partisan votes, but has also been distinguished by a willingness to work closely with Democrats in the development of legislation, particularly as ranking Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP). The best recent example is his work with Patty Murray on an ultimately unsuccessful effort to keep Donald Trump from destroying the provider subsidies needed to make Obamacare work effectively. The whole effort was eventually abandoned earlier this year after a dispute over an anti-abortion rider Republicans insisted upon — a not atypical fate for bipartisan legislation in the Trump era generally.
But Alexander’s suitability for the role of a possible anti-Trump gadfly goes deeper than his personal political record. He is among the last living survivors of the once-robust legacy of southern moderate Republicanism. Rooted in the Appalachian region (Alexander’s hometown is Maryville, in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains), so-called “Mountain Republicans” formed their allegiance with the GOP not out of opposition to the New Deal or the civil rights movement, like many Republicans in other parts of the South and beyond, but in opposition to the Confederacy. So, by and large, Republicans from these areas have lacked the ideological rigidity of their flatland colleagues. Alexander’s Tennessee mentor, Howard Baker, from the same background, was a notably moderate Senate leader during his party’s slow transition to movement-conservative domination in the Reagan years.
Senate Democrats clearly hope Alexander will persist in his bipartisan habits going forward, as Hohmann notes:
Chuck Schumer said he “felt a pang of sadness” when he saw the afternoon news alert that Alexander was retiring while riding the Amtrak from New York to Washington. The Senate minority leader immediately phoned him. “He reminded me … he will still be around for two years and wants to work together to get things done, an Alexanderian statement if there ever was one,” Schumer said in a floor speech last night.
But the Tennesseean is also close to Mitch McConnell, that consummate partisan wire-puller. And Alexander’s personal style doesn’t exhibit much taste for the kind of intense confrontation that bucking Trump would invite.
So the odds are high that whatever he tries to accomplish in private, Lamar Alexander will drift towards retirement representing a dignified implicit dissent from what Donald Trump and conservative ideologues have together done to his party and to the Senate — but won’t make much noise about it. With him will depart another vestige of traditions that were already endangered when he was working for Richard Nixon.