New Choirmaster Alexander Seeks Senatorial GOP Harmony

Posted on March 3, 2008

It’s hard to know which is the bigger surprise: the debut of a Republican initiative promoting universal access to health care or the strategy of legislative accommodation being showcased alongside it. Both are largely the handiwork of the newly installed chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, Lamar Alexander, who is keen to highlight a series of legislative initiatives in what’s shaping up to be a difficult election season for his party. The sixth-year Tennessee senator — who remains best known for his two presidential runs, when he positioned himself as a folksy Washington outsider who almost always wore a red and black plaid flannel shirt — is now in the thick of setting the GOP legislative agenda on Capitol Hill. The health care proposal, which Alexander spelled out last week, seeks to put a Republican stamp on an issue both of the remaining Democratic presidential candidates would like to make a cornerstone of their general election campaigns. It also seeks to create some equally crucial political traction for this year’s GOP Senate candidates, by permitting them to point to their party’s detailed ideas for addressing one of the domestic policy challenges that voters identify most often. Alexander also sent a strong symbolic message about the sweep of such tactics when he tapped one of his caucus’s most reliably conservative members, North Carolina’s Richard M. Burr, to manage promotion of the multi-pronged health plan, which offers ways to reduce the cost of private health insurance so that every American can afford it and aggressively targets waste and fraud in Medicaid, the state-federal medical insurance program for the poor. Burr was Alexander’s chief rival three months ago in a rare midterm election for conference chairman — the No. 3 job in the Senate GOP hierarchy — so putting him in charge of such a prominent election-year effort offered some reassurance to conservatives that Alexander’s accommodating style wouldn’t compromise GOP principles or their own power profiles in the Senate. Behind such moves is a frank acknowledgment that the Republican Party can no longer pivot forward primarily on the strength of an energized base of movement conservatives, as Karl Rove theorized when he was steering President Bush to re-election in 2004. For now, Alexander’s aides and supporters say, beleaguered Senate incumbents need to be able to show voters they’re adept in the less-flamboyant art of reaching across the aisle to create workable bipartisan accords. (At the moment, the GOP has to work especially hard to hold seven particularly competitive seats this fall; Alexander’s own prospects for a second term, though, seem solid.) “Being single-minded and obsessively focused on the base isn’t going to win many elections,” said Tom Ingram, Alexander’s chief of staff. “So Republicans have got to learn to compete effectively from the middle.” This approach stands in pointed contrast to the strategy and message-crafting of Minority Leader John A. Boehner and other GOP House leaders, who make the argument that their party should re-brand itself behind core conservative principals to have any shot at stemming Democratic gains this fall, let alone reclaiming control of the Capitol. As the year moves forward, Republicans in both chambers will have a unique opportunity to assess which approach seems likelier to succeed. And the net result of all those individual appraisals will help determine Alexander’s future in the Senate leadership. Getting Less Defensive Alexander contends that the key to legislative achievement this year is seizing the initiative, thereby undercutting the Senate GOP’s recent image as an obstructionist bloc in Congress. Last year, the caucus proved itself “pretty good at blocking and tackling,” he said, noting that it was able to hold itself unified enough, and pick up enough of the other side’s votes, to stonewall such a signature Democratic proposal as a plan to offset the costs of new tax incentives for developing alternative energy sources by rolling back $13 billion in oil and gas industry subsidies. Alexander's Biographical Information: Click here to view chart In a similar vein, he sites his caucus’ successful effort this winter to at least limit the drive of Senate Democrats to curtail the Bush administration’s domestic surveillance powers. But he also maintains that those kind of defensive feints won’t be enough to make the case to voters in an election year. He wants Republicans to spell out what they would do differently. “Were not here to poke our fingers in Democrats’ eyes. We’re here to get something done,” he said in an interview. “As long as we’re on offense, I think we’ll be fine.” So Alexander has promised that “a steady stream of solutions from Republican senators” will be unveiled this the year. In addition to the health care initiative, he’s already put the caucus stamp of approval on two other proposals with bipartisan authorship that, he hopes, will win support from swing voters: One, by the leaders of the Budget Committee, Democratic Chairman Kent Conrad of North Dakota and top Republican Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, would curb the growth of federal entitlement programs; the other, by Republican Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico and Independent Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, would revamp the federal budget process and put it on a two-year cycle. Alexander comes by his conciliatory temperament naturally. Even before he won his new post, he was a one of several senators from both parties who met in search of common ground on hot-button issues including the Iraq War and global warming. Last year he and Lieberman launched a weekly senators-only breakfast aimed at building bipartisan good will. He also honed a bipartisan, pragmatic approach to making law during his eight years as governor, when the Tennessee General Assembly was run by Democrats, and as Education secretary in the early 1990s. Still, more hard-line conservative senators fear Alexander’s go-along-to-get-along approach will necessarily downplay some of the more divisive issues on the GOP agenda, even though the party’s base often rallies to them. Chief on this list are issues such as tax cuts, border security and curbs on earmarking. Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma are plumping for those issues — though they’re also refraining from any direct criticisms of Alexander. “Hopefully the party will steer that direction as well,” DeMint said. Dissenting Voices At least one GOP strategist, who declined to be named while speaking out against a party leader’s initiatives, contends that Alexander’s brand of accommodation dilutes the party’s political appeal. “You also have to have a contrast,” he said — and in Alexander’s case, “that contrast just isn’t there.” But Alexander’s allies say the election-year math of 2008 favors moderation. That’s because three of the four GOP senators in the most daunting re-election races are moderates: Minnesota’s Norm Coleman, Maine’s Susan Collins and Oregon’s Gordon H. Smith. If they’re unable to run on concrete legislative achievements, their prospects look bleaker still. (The fourth is New Hampshire’s John E. Sununu, who’s generally conservative; the three other toughest GOP races are the open seats the party hopes to hold in Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico.) Coleman says moderates are grateful to Alexander for providing leftward cover. “If we’re going to be a majority party, we really have to have a big tent,” he said. “To have senators from Maine, Minnesota and Oregon, places like that, you need to attract independents.” But cutting those deals can be a delicate thing. So far, Alexander has encouraged GOP senators to be entrepreneurial in moving legislation forward. Burr, for example, will take the lead on health care, while Gregg will work on tamping down entitlement growth. Even detractors such as Oklahoma’s James M. Inhofe, who opposed Alexander’s election as conference chairman, are gratified with his power-sharing approach. “I wasn’t sure he was going to be able to do this,” Inhofe said. “But now I’m convinced that he’s able — in his own mind — to segregate his own personal philosophies and beliefs from that which he’s representing in a leadership position.” Inhofe says he was especially impressed that Alexander allowed him time at a party caucus to explain his opposition to a cap-and-trade system to curb utilities’ greenhouse gas emissions, a plan that Alexander has long supported. He’s likely to face a lot of similar trade-offs and balancing acts as he tries to marshal the moderate and conservative wings of the party into something resembling a working consensus. The main challenge of any leadership post in the party, said Eric Ueland, a former top Senate GOP leadership aide who’s now a lobbyist, is to keep everyone “singing from the same hymnal, hopefully the same song and hopefully the same lyrics.” As he’s leading the choir, Alexander clearly has his eye on moving up a notch to be GOP whip — or even to the top job of floor leader whenever Kentucky’s McConnell relinquishes it. Alexander may be a low-key leader, but he “isn’t ready to sit in a rocking chair,” said Bruce Oppenheimer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. “There’s still some ambition left in him.”