Commentary: Et tu, Lamar?

September 22, 2020 5:30 am
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander

WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 19: U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) holds a confirmation hearing for Eugene Scalia to become the next U.S. Labor Secretary on September 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. Scalia, son of late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is a partner with Gibson Dunn & Crutcher where he led the Labor and Employment Practice Group for the past 12 years. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

Perhaps, it’s only fitting that Sen. Lamar Alexander be the one to bury the Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. tradition of statesmanship, a tradition more reviled than remembered by today’s Tennessee Republican Party.

Less than 24 hours after praising the “decency” of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Alexander jumped on the Mitch McConnell bandwagon, saying: “No one should be surprised that a Republican Senate majority would vote on a Republican President’s Supreme Court nomination, even during a presidential election year. The Constitution gives senators the power to do it. The voters who elected them expect it.”

Alexander’s decency was to wait a day.

Much has been written about Alexander being the consummate “institutionalist.”  That essentially was the rationale he offered for his vote to acquit President Trump earlier this year.  The House investigation had run amuck, he argued, and the President’s behavior, while “inappropriate,” did not rise to the impeachment bar of the Constitution.

Leave it to the “people” to pass judgment on the president in the election, he said.

Now, there is no time to wait for the “people” because the Senate Republicans have the votes, and any concern for the institution of the Supreme Court is out the window.

And here is Alexander in 2016 when, again, he said the “people” should have a role.

“This debate is not about Judge Garland. It’s about whether to give the American people a voice in the selection of the next Supreme Court justice. . . .

“I believe it is reasonable to give the American people a voice by allowing the next president to fill this lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court. Under our Constitution, the president has the right to nominate, but the Senate has the right to decide whether to consent at this point in a presidential election year. Sen. McConnell is only doing what the Senate majority has the right to do and what Senate Democrat leaders have said they would do in similar circumstances.”

The bottom line for Alexander is party politics and power. 

Once an engaging politician of youth and freshness, Alexander now exits stage right as a sad reminder of what it means to be worn down by the fear of a presidential tweet.

In fact, Alexander has not proven to be much of an “institutionalist.”  As chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, he has sat on the sidelines during the pandemic and watched the White House burn down the nation’s public health institutions.  Improper pressure on the Food and Drug Administration’s regulatory decisions, unhinged attacks on the science of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and incompetent management by the Department of Health and Human Services have all gone unchallenged during Alexander’s watch.

Baker, on the other hand, rose to the occasion during the debate and vote on the Panama Canal Treaty put forward by President Jimmy Carter’s Administration.  As the Senate Majority Leader, Baker could have let the partisan furies loose and doomed the treaty from the beginning.  Instead, as reported by the Washington Post’s Robert Kaiser, Baker used the Senate in that quaint phrase attributed to George Washington as a “saucer” to cool political passions.  Baker had himself briefed both pro and con on the treaty and distributed those briefings to educate other senators.

Convinced of the merits of the treaty – albeit with some face-saving amendments, Baker brought other Republicans along with him and gave the Democrat Carter a significant foreign policy achievement.

That brand of statesmanship has fallen out of favor in today’s Tennessee Republican Party, as evidenced by this summer’s GOP Senate primary brawl between Bill Hagerty and Manny Sethi where the race was to the bottom with television ads seeking to show who was the more xenophobic.

Alexander, who came on to the Tennessee political stage wearing plastic straw hats and banging out Alexander’s Ragtime Band on the piano to project youth and freshness, now exits stage right as a sad reminder of what it means to be worn down by the fear of a presidential tweet.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Jim O'Hara
Jim O'Hara

Jim O’Hara Jim O’Hara covered the Master Teacher/Better Schools debates in the General Assembly as a Tennessean political reporter in the 1980s. He also served as Associate Commissioner for Public Affairs at the Food and Drug Administration from 1993-1997 and Associate Administrator for External Affairs at the Environmental Protection Agency from 2012-2013.