Crossing the Aisle 

At a time of gridlock, Senator Alexander makes the case for bipartisanship.

Lamar Alexander and Gov. Bill Haslam

Jackson Baker

Lamar Alexander and Gov. Bill Haslam

In an extended sit-down chat with Tennessee reporters last week in Tampa Bay, U.S. senator Lamar Alexander addressed the issue of Republican hegemony in the state and the dangers — yes, dangers — that could come in its wake. "Entrenched success brings vulnerability. We have to be on our toes and keep an open door, recruit good candidates, and allow diversity in our thinking, and not try to turn everybody toward one single point of view."

That's not quite the kind of "dangers" that might be foreseen by committed Tennessee Democrats, a beleaguered and diminishing breed these days. But hear the man out. Reiterating his opposition to persistent proposals from the GOP rank and file for a closed Republican primary, Alexander recalled the days, not so long ago, when Republicans were not only a minority among the state's registered voters but among its elected officials, too. It was a running theme among Tennesseans at the Tampa convention.

Alexander's explanation for this fact is of the kill-two-birds variety. "We clearly have a more conservative party in Tennessee, because we have more voters," he said, indicating that the reverse was true, as well. "In 1974, when I got the Republican nomination for governor, I was 34, and I had all of 120,000 votes. But because we've had an open door ever since to the Reagan voters, the Goldwater voters, the Perot voters, the Pat Robertson voters, and the Tea Party voters, we now have 600,000 or 700,000 voters. It's a bigger party, because it's a more conservative party."

And how did he, the man who once was regarded as the quintessential GOP moderate, feel about that? The senator deliberated. "I'm more of a conservative. I never liked the term 'moderate,' because it suggests to most people somebody who doesn't have principles." He prefers a different formulation to describe a bipartisan streak that is occasional but obvious.

"I believe in getting results. As governor, I couldn't have got much done if I hadn't worked with Speaker McWherter and Speaker Wilder," referring to then state House speaker, later governor, Ned McWherter, and longtime Senate speaker and lieutenant governor John Wilder, both Democrats.

Alexander has, in the course of time, changed his venue, going from running a state to serving in the country's most prestigious (and perhaps most divided and gridlocked) legislative body, but he still tries to see beyond narrow partisanship.

One of his major projects right now is the Marketplace Fairness Act, which he describes as an effort "to allow Tennessee to collect the same taxes from some vendors it collects from everybody else." Clearly, this bill, on which Tennessee's other senator, Bob Corker, is a partner, is aimed at online sellers, and Alexander sees the measure as one of "states' rights." As such, you would think Republicans could support it, but, in fact, he says the major obstacle to passing the bill is Republican senators.

"If we could pass the bill, we could do all kinds of things — maybe cut the sales tax, prevent there being an income tax, lower the tuition at state colleges."

Earlier this year, Alexander stepped down from a position in the Senate leadership as Republican conference chairman expressly so he could feel freer to pursue such measures from an independent perspective.

He also values his relationship with Tennessee's two remaining Democrats in Congress, representatives Steve Cohen of Memphis and Jim Cooper of Nashville. He and Cohen are vigorously attempting to fix the holes in a law, designed for environmental purposes, that had "unintended consequences on musicians and importers of instruments," resulting in federal raids on the Gibson Guitar Company in Memphis and Nashville.

As for party platforms, like the document issued last week by the Republican National Committee? "A platform is a repository of ideas from the broad spectrum of the Republican Party," adding, after a pause, "and that's a good place for those ideas. I've got my own views."

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