Alexander's Victory Not Necessarily a Win for Moderation
By a nearly 2-1 margin today, Senate Republicans cast their lot with a colleague preaching a message of reaching out to centrist/independent voters -- a person who openly bragged about his bipartisan relationships with Democrats and who presents an older, gentler face to the nation.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), 67, won a resounding 31-16 victory over Sen. Richard Burr (N.C.) for the No. 3 leadership post, Republican Conference chairman, a race that was pitted very much along the generational and stylistic differences between the two men. Alexander's large victory does not signal any dramatic change in the Republican conference, nor does it herald a new age of bipartisan comity in the Senate.
Indeed, within 90 minutes of Alexander's win, Senate Republicans blocked a Democratic-preferred version of a fix to the alternative minimum tax law, which included higher taxes on private equity fund managers. And then, after that vote failed, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) took to the floor to applaud Alexander's victory, as well as Sen. Jon Kyl's (Ariz.) unanimous ascension to the minority whip post. After Reid's gesture, Republicans went on to block Reid from moving to a compromise measure on the AMT.
So the Alexander victory needs to be taken in context, not as something that will change the plate tectonics of the Senate GOP. It is still a conservative caucus, still a party that inside of Congress will go to great lengths to block the Democratic agenda.
However, the victory, particularly the margin of victory, should not be overlooked or brushed off by conservatives who prefer the confrontational approach adopted this year by Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Those two in particular have pushed the margins of parliamentary procedure this year, whether it was jamming up the works on the immigration bill supported by President Bush or forcing tough votes on special interest earmarks in spending bills.
With both men openly supporting Burr, his candidacy became a symbolic vote for whether that style would be embraced by their caucus. The conference chairman, after all, is the person in charge of presenting the party message, arranging press conferences and promoting Republicans on TV and radio. This leadership post, for all intents and purposes, is the face of the Senate Republicans.
And Burr lost badly, even losing support among perceived hard-line conservatives such as Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), who openly supported Alexander. "His point, I think, is a correct one: You can't just talk to your own base," Cornyn said after the vote.
Alexander, in a statement after the win, pointed toward this message again, noting his job would be to help "solidify our party's base while attracting more independents."
This is a message that is also being preached on the Republican presidential campaign trail by former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), two men who had been viewed with great disdain by social conservatives for their views on abortion and campaign finance issues, respectively. Both men are trying to use their ability to attract independent voters, particularly in a race against Democratic frontrunner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), as a major plank in their campaigns.
This internal battle within the Republican Party remains far from resolved, since Alexander's victory is just an internal caucus leadership race and nothing approaching the importance of a presidential nomination. And to some extent these secret ballot races turn on the one-to-one relationships senators have, not so much on ideological issues.
But having been so resoundingly beaten, Senate conservatives were grasping for explanations afterward. DeMint said he liked Alexander, that the Tennessean was plenty conservative enough for him. But DeMint said he still wanted a "new face" at the leadership table. "We've got to change the way we do things," DeMint said, noting that the change has to be in the GOP message and in their actions on the floor.
And Burr, 52, said there would be little difference, substantively, between him or Alexander in leading the conference. "I don't feel for a moment we've missed anything here but for a new generational face," he said.
December 6, 2007; 1:57 PM ET
Categories: GOP Leaders , Senate
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