U.S. senator Lamar Alexander is surely one of the more congenial figures in Tennessee politics — or on the national scene, for that matter. As we have noted several times before, he has an uncanny ability to strike the right kind of bipartisan notes even while upholding the interests and
precepts of the Republican Party (whose caucus chairman he is in the Senate).
Such was the case again Tuesday, when the state's senior senator and former governor addressed members of the Memphis Rotary Club on the predicament of the United States of America, circa April 2009.
Alexander started with the good news. Commending Democratic governor Phil Bredesen for his governmental economies, the senator noted that, by virtue of the state's constitutional requirement for a balanced budget, Tennesseans are burdened with almost no debt. The amount per capita is roughly $1,000 "and declining," Alexander observed. Nationally, as he pointed out, the picture is far bleaker. The current amount of federal debt incurred per each man, woman, or child is $46,000 — with expectations that it will rise to $76,000 in 10 years.
"With that amount of debt, we wouldn't even be eligible for membership in the European Union," Alexander quipped sardonically.
All that was preparation for the senator's GOP talking points to come. But in the meantime, he veered back to the cover of his ecumenical angel, defending the individualized appropriations called "earmarks" against criticism. Many of the budgetary projects earmarked for Tennessee and elsewhere are valuable, he said, and, in any case, earmarks amount to no more than 1 percent of the federal budget.
The real problem, he said, lies with the entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Perhaps wisely, he avoided prescribing a remedy — other than to suggest means-testing the hugely profligate Part D program tacked on to Medicare by a Bush-era Congresss seemingly intent on emptying the Treasury for the benefit of Big Pharma. Alexander also advocated establishing an impartial federal body to operate along the lines of the military-base-closing commission of a generation ago.
From there, the senator went on to what he saw as the nation's dangerous "energy gap" — a major remedy for which he saw as reactivation of nuclear-energy facilities via a "mini-Manhattan Project," discounting solar energy and wind turbines in much the way he had minimized the issue of earmarks.
Next, Alexander proposed a federal program that would reduce the cost of college by moving to the concept of three-year degree programs and free community colleges.
That's the innovative Alexander we like to hear, the same open-minded legislator who, back when the Bush administration was upping the military ante, came out for scaled-down commitments to Iraq.
Alas, in a final Q&A session with the Rotarians, the senator concluded by disapproving of almost the entirety of President Obama's stimulus program, suggesting that the president should be focusing instead on "fixing the banks."
On that bedrock of party-line GOP politics, the senator came to rest. On the whole, though, he sounded notes appropriate to a loyal opposition, and in today's contentious political atmosphere, we'll take what we can get.