Last week Sen. Lamar Alexander threw a curve ball that no one saw coming. Tennessee’s senior member in the U.S. Senate announced he will step down from being the third man on the GOP depth chart, become a back-bencher, and will run for re-election when he turns 74.
Officially, come January, when he will have completed four years as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, the third most powerful slot in the Republican caucus, he will not stand for re-election to the post.
Alexander said on Tuesday, “Stepping down will liberate me to work for results on the issues I care the most about. That means stopping runaway regulations and spending. But it also means setting priorities — confronting the timidity that allows runaway health care spending to squeeze out research, scholarships, highways and other government functions that make it easier and cheaper to create jobs. I want to do more to make the Senate a more effective institution so that it can deal better with serious issues.”
OK, let’s stop the tape.
That’s a veiled swing at both GOP leader Sen. Mitch McConnell and Democratic Sen. Harry Reid. The members of both party’s leadership have traditionally worked together even when, to the rest of us, it looks like they are sniping. What Alexander is saying is that sniping is now the only thing they are doing and posturing has taken precedence over policy matters.
Now back to Alexander’s statement.
“For four years, my leadership job has been to help others succeed, to find a Republican consensus and to suggest a message,” Alexander said. “There are different ways to offer leadership. After nine years in the Senate, this is how I believe I can now make my greatest contribution.” He said that for these same reasons, he does not plan to be a candidate for a leadership position in the next Congress.
The real message is, “I don’t get or like what Sen. Jim DeMint and the Tea Party types are doing, and because I am in an official leadership position I have had to keep my mouth shut. No more.”
And finally, the kicker …
“I said to Tennesseans when I first ran for the Senate that I would serve with conservative principles and an independent attitude. I will continue to serve in that same way,” Alexander said. “I am a very Republican Republican. I intend to be more, not less, in the thick of resolving serious issues. And I plan to run for re-election in 2014.”
There are two biggies in that paragraph, one of which I don’t necessarily believe yet.
First let’s tackle the “Republican Republican” comment. That’s the second swing at Tea Party-type Republicans and a repudiation of the anti-intellectualism bent of the Michele Bachmann/Rick Perry wing of the GOP.
Alexander is not going along with the populism of the moment. He is saying he is a man from his mentor Howard Baker’s wing of the party. If he were a rapper, he would be “O.G.,” an “Original Gangsta,” someone who falls back to the way political battles were fought with words and fists in the 1970s … not the lethal weapons of today.
Alexander follows that with, “I intend to be more, not less, in the thick of resolving serious issues,” implying that a leadership position has tied his hands. Instead of coddling petulant members of his caucus in the cloakroom, he plans on calling it like he sees it.
And though he closes with “I plan to run for re-election in 2014,” I am not ready to concede that just yet.
The statement was made for obvious reasons. It would be natural for many to assume that anyone leaving a leadership position late in his career wouldn’t run again. Alexander is protecting his flank and saying, “I am not going anywhere; you are going to have to deal with me and like it.”
Absent that statement, at least three Republican exploratory committees would appear next week. And Democrats would have 36 months to find a whisper of some sort of viable candidate. Alexander shut all that down, for now.
In 2014 he will be 74 and may change his mind. Remember, when he won the seat in 2002, he was gifted a huge advantage because incumbent U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson dropped out late. The statewide network and name identification he already had gave him a major boost over a younger generation of GOP hopefuls.
Thompson and Alexander both worked for Baker and shared a philosophy of how government should work. To this day, I believe the fix was in and the reason Thompson waited to announce he wouldn’t run again was to give the advantage to his old colleague.
Lamar may run in 2014, but don’t be surprised if he drops out in a manner that would give an advantage to someone of his ideological stripe.