Lamar Alexander crafts GOP message

Tennessee senator guides policy positions and helps set party agenda

Posted on March 9, 2009

How to heal the economy? Fix housing first. High energy costs? Find more, use less. If either of those phrases rings a bell, Sen. Lamar Alexander has succeeded in getting the message out for Senate Republicans. For about a year, the Tennessee Republican has been chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, making him the No. 3 Senate GOP leader. His main job is to help formulate policy positions and get them used by his colleagues and heard by the general public. It's an especially tough assignment now, with the Republican Party coming off a beating in last fall's election and recent sniping between conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh and new Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele over Limbaugh's influence. "You do it the way a conductor gets music from his symphony orchestra," Alexander said of his job. "There is no way to impose an agenda on 41 individualistic Republican senators." The process often begins, he said, at weekly Monday meetings of Senate Republican leaders and Tuesday luncheons with all Senate Republicans. Last week, 13 senators spoke for five minutes each at the Tuesday luncheon about their views on energy and climate change. "I am trying to listen to the caucus and understand and see what I can hear frequently coming out," Alexander said. To develop themes and distribute Senate Republicans' message, Alexander taps into a staff of about 20 housed in a suite of offices on the fourth floor of the Hart Senate Office Building. They include writers, graphic artists and technicians who help run two small broadcast studios, one for TV and one for radio. During a tour last week, Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho was in the radio studio answering questions from callers on a show from his home state. Elsewhere, an artist sketched an image of a dump truck dropping money over a cliff for possible use as a poster by GOP senators speaking on the floor. Ryan Loskarn, communications director for the conference operation, said it has a budget of about $1.7 million, paid for with tax dollars appropriated to run the Senate. Senate Democrats have a similar operation. The GOP conference staff also runs a Web site and uses the latest technological bells and whistles — including the social networking service Twitter — to distribute the party's messages. Alexander cites as successes Senate Republicans' proposal last year to deal with the energy crisis and their views that housing should be a part of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan. The "find more, use less" line sums up the GOP's policy of stressing energy conservation while also pushing to open up more of America's coastal areas to oil drilling. Expanded drilling was approved. "That was an example of where we helped set the agenda and basically forced the Democratic majority to change their policy," Alexander said. The phrase was so popular it was repeated often on cable news shows — something the conference staff captured in a video montage they used to show senators the effectiveness of speaking with one voice. Alexander said the "fix housing first" mantra — which was displayed on posters set up behind senators when they spoke on the floor — helped win passage of a $15,000 tax credit for homebuyers. The credit was approved by the Senate before being modified to an $8,000 credit for first-time buyers in the final stimulus bill. His work may be drowned out John Geer, a Vanderbilt University political scientist and an expert in political communication, said he thinks Alexander is doing fine but his work may get lost in the fight for supremacy among Republicans. "A lot of people want to claim to be the voice of the party," Geer said. Geer said it may not be good for the party or the country for Republicans to embrace the message of bipartisanship. "The role of the opposition in democracy is to hold the majority accountable," he said. Alexander believes Senate Republicans need to do both — oppose the Obama administration and offer alternatives. "I think one reason we're out of office is because we did a poor job of saying what we are for and connecting with the American people," Alexander said. "I'd say we're toward the top of the league in defense and pretty far down in offense."