For an institution that cherishes its reputation as “the world’s most deliberative body,— change can be hard to swallow — particularly for Senate Republicans.
But change has come to the Republican Conference, where Sen. John Thune’s (S.D.) rise to chairman of the Policy Committee and Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s (Alaska) election as vice chairwoman of the Conference have marked a sudden shift to a younger generation of leaders.
Thune, 48, and Murkowski, 52, are at the vanguard of a mini-youth movement within Senate Republican ranks that includes Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) as chief deputy Minority Whip and Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.), among others. Burr is 53 and Corker is 56.
“I think it’s a reflection of the generational change of the Senate,— Burr said. “I think it’s a good thing. ... You saw the same thing happen in the House [GOP] last year. And six months later, it’s happening in the Senate.—
“When I was a Senate staffer 25 years ago, I observed a similar kind of shift,— Thune said Tuesday. “Then it was [former Sen.] Don Nickles [Okla.],— now-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and others are coming of age in the Senate, he said.
But Thune and Murkowski could also represent an important shift in how Republicans present their ideas, away from the confrontational approach leaders often took during the Clinton and Bush administrations. Instead, Republicans anticipate a more diverse, policy-oriented approach to the debates of the day.
Murkowski said the presence of lawmakers in leadership who do not hail from the South is particularly important, since “the fact of the matter is, we have Republicans all over this country.— She added that it is important to ensure “that Republicans all over the country feel that they are represented in the Senate.—
Murkowski also said her ascension into leadership is a reflection of the times. “It is an issue of age. It is an issue of gender. I do believe we do a better job of representing— Americans when there is a diversity of ages, races and genders in leadership, she said.
Eric Ueland, who worked as chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), said that while the rise of Murkowski and Thune represents a “more generational than philosophical change— for the party, the two lawmakers share the ability to express GOP principles in a way that does not alienate moderates and Democrats.
Given the shifts in the political landscape over the past several years, “with new voters and motivated populations you need to be prepared to deal with that and be able to talk to them in this day and age— rather than simply focus on traditional base constituencies, Ueland said.
Ueland and other Republicans pointed out that for the better part of two decades, Republicans have spent most of their time either in open combat with Congressional Democrats and the Clinton administration or acting as backup for an agenda driven by former President George W. Bush. During that time, leadership in both chambers became adept at pursuing base-driven agendas and messages, since cooperation — and to a large degree even outreach to moderates — was unnecessary for their political goals.
But over the past few years, that dynamic has changed, and McConnell, Minority Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) have openly pushed their Members to adapt.
Murkowski and Thune could represent the GOP’s best hope in beginning to move toward a new, more cooperative and less confrontational approach, Republicans said.
Murkowski “can find partners across the aisle. She can make intelligent judgments— without sacrificing principle, Ueland noted. “And that’s frankly not something Republicans have had to do for a long time.—
Murkowski chalked up her ability to find common ground with Democrats and her appeal to a broader audience to the political realities of her home state of Alaska. Murkowski noted that the state is undergoing a political transformation similar to the one that is taking place across the country, as the state’s original political titans — most of whom are Republicans and included her father, former Sen. and Gov. Frank Murkowski — leave public office.
The new generation of leaders in Alaska has found that it has a much more complex reality to deal with, Murkowski said, given the growing number of minorities in the state and the fact that the state is heavily unionized despite the population’s conservative bent.
“We’re not assuming that this base we’re talking about is the base that our fathers were talking to,— she said. In order to address the needs of that shifting base of voters, Republicans in the state and nationally have to adjust not so much what they say, she said, but how they interact with voters, putting increased importance on “how we’re getting that message through to the people that we represent.—
Thune spent much of his six years in the House aligned closely with the party’s conservative wing — and remains a favorite of conservative activists — but he has honed his policy chops in the Senate, pursuing a largely fiscal agenda.
Thune said it is difficult, particularly for conservatives, to strike the right balance in Congress between ideological purity and the need to get things done.
“It’s hard being a conservative working in government ... [but] there is a practical reality that some on our side don’t always understand,— he said.
A former senior GOP leadership aide said Thune and Murkowski are the perfect tonic for what ails Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“Thune is a terrific face for the party, which frankly there are not a heck of a lot in leadership. ... He also is perceived as being a pretty reasonable figure,— the former aide said. As for Murkowski, this Republican said that in addition to being “a female face and maybe a more moderating influence ... she’s also somebody who’s had a lot of experience with energy policy, and that’s a big part of the Republican platform right now.—
Thune and Murkowski embody “very well what Senate Republicans want to be,— the aide added.