Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander caused a ripple on Capitol Hill last week by announcing he will drop out of his party's Senate leadership to pursue a more independent course, which would seem to be a break from the GOP's my-way-or-the-highway solidarity.
The news that in January he will give up his No. 3 position as Republican conference chairman was particularly surprising because the two-time presidential candidate has always been a conspicuous climber. A few years ago he ran for the No. 2 spot as Senate Republican whip and missed by a single vote; he had been expected to try again, with Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the incumbent whip, slated for retirement.
But this time he would be facing stiff competition from conservative Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the tough-minded chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee credited with moving the GOP minority closer to a majority heading toward the 2012 elections.
While insisting he remains "a very Republican Republican" who has spent the last four years in the Senate leadership seeking Republican consensus, Mr. Alexander said "there are different ways to offer leadership," and he cited talks with several Democrats aimed at finding common ground on issues ranging from education to clean-air legislation.
Ever since his entry into politics, Mr. Alexander has been seen as a restless power-seeker, belying his benign demeanor. In 1967, he came to Washington as legislative assistant to then Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee and became an aide to Nixon political adviser Bryce Harlow in the White House. After losing one bid for the governorship of Tennessee, Mr. Alexander was elected to that office in 1978 after walking 1,000 miles around the state campaigning in a red-and-black lumberjack's shirt that became his trademark.
After two years as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he took his family to Australia for six months and wrote a book about it, returning to be president of the University of Tennessee and then secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. In 1996 and again in 2000 he ran for and lost the Republican presidential nomination, brandishing the slogan "Lamar!" — apparently designed to convey an excitement that did not match up with either the candidate or his campaign.
But Mr. Alexander did have a reputation for seeking to reach across the political aisle, before and after he was finally elected to the U.S. Senate in 2002. He notably worked on education issues with the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy, and in his latest decision to leave the Republican Senate leadership he argued that policy disagreements need not lead to incivility.
"The Senate was designed to be the forum for confronting the most difficult issues producing the biggest disappointments," he said. "I don't buy for one minute the notion that such policy disagreements produce an unhealthy lack of civility. Those who believe that debates today are more fractious than before have no sense of American history. ... What of the venomous debates before and during the Civil War, the Army-McCarthy hearings, the Watergate era, and the Vietnam War?"
Mr. Alexander contended that the news media, not the Senate, is responsible for the incivility, saying, "most of the people you hear shouting at one another on television and radio and the Internet have never been elected to anything at all. It would help to produce better results if we senators knew one another better across party lines. But to suggest that we should be more timid in debating the issues is to ignore American history and the purpose of the Senate."
The problem in the Senate today, however, is not just the fractiousness of debate. It is also the clear unwillingness of its Republican leadership to entertain serious compromise. Mr. Alexander's rationale for leaving the leadership could also signal that if he didn't jump, he might well have been pushed.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption." His email is email@example.com.