Alexander Sheds His Mr. Nice Guy Image

Posted November 25, 2009 at 3:15pm

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) often advocates bipartisanship and across-the-aisle relationship building. But lately, the soft-spoken Tennessean has been mixing that friendly rhetoric with a healthy dose of partisanship — aggressively leading his party’s efforts to attack President Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats.

To be sure, Alexander, the No. 3 Senator in the Republican hierarchy, has continued to champion interparty partnerships — for instance, he introduced a new nuclear power bill earlier this month with Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.). But lately he’s matching those efforts with some of the hard-line rhetoric typically reserved for his Conference’s more conservative Members.

Alexander has accused the White House of compiling an “enemies list— to try to stifle its opponents, equated the Democratic health care plan to “cutting Grandma’s Medicare to spend money on somebody else— and bluntly warned vulnerable Democrats that the GOP will force repeated votes on tax increases and Medicare cuts.

Although Alexander has tried to downplay his newfound bomb-throwing, he recently acknowledged that it is a tactic he has used in order to try to advance his agenda. “Politics is the tool of the trade, but the goal is to get something done,— Alexander said.

Republican Conference Vice Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) said that while Alexander’s natural inclination is to be a more “thoughtful type— of politician, his work as Conference chairman has required him to become more partisan. “Sometimes that requires a bit more partisan spark. I still think he handles it like a real gentleman,— Murkowski said.

Alexander’s GOP colleagues argued that because Alexander has a reputation of being a moderate, the attacks often end up appearing more stinging. “Stylistically and theme-wise, he has a nice way of doing it. So he can deliver a punch and have a smile while doing it,— one Republican lawmaker said.

Those punches began earlier this fall when Alexander waded into the controversy over the “White House enemy’s list.— Alexander took to the floor to urge the administration against creating such a list, ticking off a list of examples he argued support his contention, including charges that the White House was trying to marginalize the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that the Health and Human Services Department had tried to put a “gag order— on the insurer Humana, that the White House was waging a war with Fox News and that the president was trying to make insurers the boogeyman of the health care debate.

Drawing on his own experiences as an aide in the Nixon White House — and billing the speech as “friendly advice— — Alexander warned, “If the president and his top aides treat people with different views as enemies instead of listening to what they have to say, they’re likely to end up with a narrow view and a feeling that the whole world is out to get them. And as those of us who served in the Nixon administration know, that can get you into a lot of trouble.—

Alexander also took the administration to task on the short-lived “czar scandal,— which was prompted by conservative complaints that the administration was appointing unaccountable bureaucrats to run large segments of the executive branch.

But perhaps Alexander’s most pointed criticism came during the Senate’s recent debate over whether to take up Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) health care reform package.

Despite the fact that Reid had sewn up the 60 votes he needed to move forward on the bill, Alexander took to the floor on Nov. 21, just hours before the vote, to deliver a harsh indictment of the legislation.

“This bill is historic in its arrogance — arrogance that we in Congress are wise enough to take this complex health system that is 16 percent of our economy and serves 300 million Americans and think we can write a 2,000-page bill and change it all — all at once. … It’s arrogant to dump 15 million low-income Americans into a medical ghetto called Medicaid that none of us or any of our families would ever want to join,— Alexander said.

The speech angered many liberals, and left-leaning bloggers charged Alexander with taking a racially charged shot by using the word “ghetto— — a complaint Alexander aides denied.

Democrats say Alexander’s increasingly sharp tone is part of a broader shift to the right by the GOP. They say Republican leaders like Alexander are being influenced by outside “tea party— activists and other conservatives.

“Rhetoric like this shows how far the Republican Party is being pulled to the right by the tea party types and the so-called ‘birthers,’— Reid spokesman Jim Manley said, referring to those individuals who have waged protests against the Democratic agenda and suggested that Obama is not a U.S. citizen.

Alexander’s decision to join ­and even help lead his party’s attacks in recent weeks is somewhat unusual for the two-term Senator, former Cabinet secretary, University of Tennessee president and governor. While other Congressional Republicans, particularly in the House, have been eager to engage in the running battles with the Democratic majority, Alexander has sought to avoid them. As the chief architect of the GOP’s day-to-day messaging, Alexander has even counseled his colleagues in the past to avoid the purely partisan fights, arguing they should instead focus on substantive policy debates. All the while, Alexander has called for a more civil tone in Washington.

A GOP operative gave Alexander high marks for his criticism of the administration on the enemies list, in particular, arguing that unlike other Republicans, Alexander was able to criticize the administration without appearing shrill. His criticism was “very, very well-done, because it came from a point of advice. It did not come from a confrontational stance,— this Republican said.

Alexander has taken a similar bent when it comes to his attacks over the Democratic health care agenda. While still looking to offer a GOP alternative to the problem, Alexander has repeatedly accused Democrats of “scaring seniors— with a “government takeover— of health care. He has also charged Democrats with trying to raise taxes and hurt small business. Taking a page from Democrats’ playbook, Alexander recently went so far as to accuse Democrats of being the “party of no— when they blocked a GOP health care plan in 2006. “They like to say that Republicans are the party of no. But they are the party of no,— Alexander said in a floor statement.

“Rarely does a Senator have an opportunity to vote on so many Medicare cuts and so many new taxes, as we apparently will have when this bill comes to us,— he said in a Nov. 5 floor speech clearly aimed at vulnerable Democrats who are on the fence about the legislation.

At the same time, however, Alexander hasn’t completely shed his bipartisan ways. In addition to his nuclear energy push earlier this month with Webb, Alexander bucked conservatives when he voted against a GOP-led filibuster of the nomination of David Hamilton, Obama’s pick for the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Alexander allowed for an up-or-down vote on the nomination, even though he later sided with 38 other Republicans in voting against confirmation of the judge.

In a statement released by his office, Alexander indicated that despite his opposition to Hamilton’s installment, he would not reverse his long-held opposition to filibustering judicial nominees.

“In my first speech on the Senate floor, and many times thereafter, I insisted that President Bush’s judicial nominees deserved up-or-down votes. How could I now say that President Obama’s nominees don’t deserve up-or-down votes?— Alexander said.

GOP Policy Committee Chairman John Thune (S.D.) said Alexander seems to have found the right balance as he helps lead the party’s attacks against the Democrats: “He is good at taking a pretty aggressive position. It works well for him, and it works well for us in terms of how our message is perceived by the American people.—

“I think Lamar has adapted to his role as Conference chair exceptionally well,— added Alexander’s home-state colleague, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.).