Culminating 18 years of distinguished mediocrity in the halls of power, Lamar Alexander took to the Senate floor last week to give what was billed as his (capital F capital S) Farewell Speech. As public address it was comically self-delusional, projecting an inflated sense of accomplishment and self-satisfaction that in normal times we might easily and reasonably dismiss as the entitled musings of an old man ambling off the stage. But these haven’t been normal times, given the morally grotesque coda to Alexander’s career that his four years of complicity with a monstrous assault on American democracy and decency represent.
Here is where one might insert a long paragraph (a very very long paragraph) cataloging the many rhetorical and political atrocities by the leader of his party over the last four years on which Alexander has chosen to stand mutely by. Rather than attempt even a partial reckoning I’ll just refer readers to this inventory of hundreds of Trump’s “cruelties, collusions, corruptions, and crimes”. Granted, a senator can’t and shouldn’t react to everything, but Alexander the allegedly sensible moderate, in concert with his fellow Republicans, objected to virtually nothing.
And let’s hasten to add that Alexander has enabled Trump not just with his silence, but also with his Senate voting record. The Congressional Trump Score tracker maintained by FiveThirtyEight puts Lamar at over 90% agreement with Trump—not quite the level of foaming-at-the-mouth true believers like Marsha Blackburn, but higher even than that sultan of suckupitude, South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham.
While some may lament that Alexander’s orangeman complicity sullies an otherwise distinguished turn in the Senate, the full picture of his eighteen years of substantive accomplishment is as flaccid as the moral fiber of the last four. He did work his way into (and yet squander) a position of influence: during his final term Alexander chaired the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and his so-called legacy is routinely framed around education and health care. So let’s take a look.
Alexander’s principal Senate accomplishment on education was steering passage in 2015 of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which limits the federal role in public education and transfers control and accountability for public education to the states. On the upside it did smooth out some of the worst test-obsession wrinkles of No Child Left Behind (aka No Test Left Behind) and had bipartisan support. Unfortunately, though, for states like Tennessee led by ignoramuses who equate intellectual achievement with threats to individual liberty (it’s hard to open a book when you’re toting an assault rifle), more local control foreshadows decades of ongoing mediocrity in public education.
And then to cap off his stewardship of America’s schoolchildren, Alexander cheerfully served his Trumpian overlords by shepherding through Senate confirmation of one of the least qualified cabinet nominees in the history of the republic: the callous and dim-witted Betsy Devos. Raise your hand if you think public education in this country is in better shape as Lamar leaves the Senate than when he arrived.
As for the H in HELP, Alexander’s committee chairmanship put him in a crucial leading role during a period when his party controlled all branches of government and promised endlessly to torpedo the Affordable Care Act and fix health care. And don’t fall for the illusion that Alexander has been more measured than his unhinged fellow Republicans. Calling Obamacare a “historic mistake,” Lamar brags that he voted to kill it more than 90 times. In fact, his leading “accomplishment” as committee chair was getting fully behind the Senate’s failed effort in 2017 to repeal and replace with measures that would have thrown millions off health insurance while lowering taxes for wealthy individuals.
Alexander’s trademark move—the verbal sleight of hand that fools many into the hallucination that he’s a thoughtful moderate—is to seduce with soft rhetoric (compared to his snarling GOP colleagues) while doing nothing to rein in the snarls or to advance an actual and serious moderate agenda. It works especially well on health care, like when he called the Trump administration’s legal argument asking the Supreme Court to kill off ACA “flimsy” (nobody disagrees with that) but did nothing to actually try to stop his party and his president from actually obliterating health care for tens of millions of actual humans. It’s a classic example of the blend of faux moderation, speciousness, and cowardice that are the hallmarks of on-brand Lamarspeak bullshit.
So raise your hand if you think the system of health care in this country is in better shape as Lamar leaves the Senate than when he arrived. Oh wait, I do believe the CEOs of Aetna, Anthem, and UnitedHealth have their hands up.
Here in Tennessee, Alexander is accorded by many some sort of statesmanlike status, likely a factorial combination of his having held down a number of significant posts (governor, US education secretary, US senator) over a long span of years free of grift or graft (that we know of anyway). In the bye-bye speech he gave on the Senate floor Lamar freely assumed the elder statesman posture: ok kids, gather around while grandpa flips on the folksy switch and tells you what’s wrong with ‘merican government.
The speech went from prosaic self-aggrandizement to out-and-out howler when he got to the part that waxed hallucinogenic on how the country needs a Senate that will “put country before partisanship” to create “agreements on controversial issues.” His failure to mention—or even vaguely hint—that his own party has been the very definition of obstruction, and that he has done nothing whatsoever to overcome it, tells us all we need to know.
Alexander in his speech navigated his way through 3100 words of like pablum, eventually arriving at this chestnut: “The rest of the world wishes they had our system of government.” Good lord Senator, you need to get out more. Owing in no small measure to you and your party’s fine stewardship of democracy these last several years, the rest of the world has milk coming out of its nose when it thinks about our system of government.
So as Alexander heads off from DC into the Maryville sunset, his associates and admirers are free to Lamarwash history and indulge him as “a great statesman who has given his all.” What we have, in fact, is a pedestrian record of limited accomplishment, capped off with a four-year abject failure to grow a moral spine as his party cast its lot with the corrupt bigotry of an infantile autocrat.
When the going gets tough, the tough speak up and push back. The morally weak, like Lamar Alexander, go cower in the closet and hope nobody notices. We noticed. Go home. Don’t come back.