Lamar Alexander, the Impeachment Vote Everyone's Watching
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because if witnesses are called on Trump, this Tennessee Republican will most likely have played a key role.
By Nick Fouriezos
OZY Newsmakers: Deep dives on the names you need to know.
While giving the eulogy of his longtime political hero, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) mapped out the impact impeachments could have on one’s legacy. Of the Watergate hearings, “the most famous words were Howard Baker’s: ‘What did the president know and when did he know it?'” Alexander recalled in 2014. “The exposure made Baker a national hero.”
It isn’t ironic that Alexander now sits in the shoes of his old boss and fellow titan of Tennessee politics. Anyone who sits in as many seats of power, and for as long, as Alexander has — a two-term governor in the 1980s, U.S. secretary of education in the ’90s and U.S. senator since 2003 — is expected to face critical choices. And at nearly every point in his storied life, the 79-year-old has met them: from advocating for racial integration at Vanderbilt University as editor of the student newspaper to brokering a sweeping update to national education policy to replace the No Child Left Behind law.
And amid a life of defining moments, his role in the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump serves as a possible legacy-defining moment. Alexander has become a focal point, with Democrats needing four Republicans to cross the aisle and vote to force witness testimony. And witnesses are the difference between a fairly quick acquittal for Trump and a drawn-out spectacle, likely featuring John Bolton. The former national security adviser reportedly writes in a forthcoming book that Trump said directly that he wanted to withhold aid from Ukraine in exchange for politically helpful investigations — which Trump has strenuously denied.
Because he is not running for reelection, Alexander faces no direct political pressure. And given his reputation as an institutionalist interested deeply in the Senate’s integrity and reputation, as well as a deal-making moderate, many believe Alexander is interested in forcing a more complete trial — and could bring multiple colleagues with him. But is he really willing to buck his party, and decades-long friend Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to do so?
Democrats should be careful about mistaking his reasonable tone and circumspect approach with agreement.
Brian Reisinger, former Alexander aide
“We have a situation where a diminished, polarized Senate is being called upon to exercise its ultimate responsibility: to check a dangerous president,” says Ira Shapiro, author of The Last Great Senate: Courage and Statesmanship in Times of Crisis, former Senate aide and Clinton administration trade negotiator. “If the people up there get this wrong, they will be remembered for it.”
Late Tuesday, McConnell — who has coordinated trial strategy with the White House — reportedly told Senate Republicans he no longer had the votes to prevent witnesses. If that is the case, Alexander almost assuredly played a major role, and he will be a key broker going forward as Democrats and Republicans try to strike a deal on who testifies. After all, Alexander is “perhaps the most respected person in the Senate,” Shapiro says, given his résumé and bipartisan bonhomie.
Even though a drawn-out trial with witnesses could lead any number of directions, don’t expect Alexander to vote to boot Trump from office. Such a drastic move strikes against the reserved temperament of this history-loving pianist known more for his desire to buckle down and get policies passed. Yes, the Smoky Mountains-born nature lover will stand out on a limb when necessary … but only if he is convinced it has roots.
“People need to understand that, in the Republican caucus, there is generally the view that the House railroaded this process through, with a situation where they didn’t have a crime. I think the House really overreached, in a way that damaged their case with people like Sen. Alexander,” says Brian Reisinger, a GOP strategist and former deputy communications director for Alexander. “Democrats should be careful about mistaking his reasonable tone and circumspect approach with agreement.”
Regardless of what happens, Alexander remains, in a partisan, trench warfare Congress, part of a dwindling group who cling to the notion and practice of bipartisanship. It started early. Alexander had to find ways to appeal to Democrats in 1970 when, as a 30-year-old campaign manager, he helped Memphis dentist Winfield Dunn become the first Republican governor in Tennessee in 50 years. He lost his own run for governor in 1974, afterward working for Baker in the Senate as an aide. But he succeeded in 1978 — making waves by walking from Mountain City to Memphis, a 1,022-mile journey across the state. After two terms as governor, he served as president of the University of Tennessee and education secretary under President George H.W. Bush. “You see that every single decision he makes goes back to, ‘How can I get things done?'” Reisinger says.
It is a mentality Shapiro has seen too. He remembers how Alexander, even when the rest of the Senate was bitterly divided in the wake of the fight over Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland in 2016, got to work — passing significant legislation on faster cures for diseases and education reform despite the animus. “He’s an eternal optimist,” Reisinger adds, saying that Alexander believes serious bills will be considered once impeachment is in the rearview mirror. “He’s someone who people should keep an eye on. Once impeachment passes, there will be a real opportunity” to get things done.
In other words, don’t write his eulogy just yet.