Retiring senator says more across-the-aisle accomplishments needed
(Three-term U.S. Senator and former two-term Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander met with News Channel 11 Nov. 22 at Rocky Fork State Park. The park bears his name and he was instrumental in securing funding to help purchase the beautiful Unicoi County land it occupies. During the visit the retiring lawmaker reflected on his career, his love for the outdoors, the future of U.S. politics and life in general. This is one of several deep dives into the conversation.)
FLAG POND, Tenn. (WJHL) — Washington gridlock might seem to rule the day, but retiring three-term Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander said important bipartisan work still gets done — including some that helped pave the way for a quicker route to a COVID-19 vaccine.
Speaking at Rocky Fork, the state park that bears his name, Alexander said just like it was needed for the recently passed Great American Outdoors Act, bipartisan collaboration has been critical in several health care-related decisions that have impacted the fight against COVID-19.
Alexander pointed to increased National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding and also to the 2016 “21st Century Cures Act” as examples. He said Missouri Republican Roy Blunt — who he named as one of two GOP senators he’s really grown to admire — has pushed through a 45% increase at NIH over the past half decade.
“That’s really paying off in this pandemic because it’s been a big help in the effort that’s permitted us to create a vaccine in eight months instead of eight years,” Alexander said.
He said the cures bill was shepherded partly by now president-elect and then Vice President Joe Biden.
“We worked very closely together [on the legislation],” Alexander said. “Obama was president; we had a Republican congress. We had to [work together] in order to get a result.”
Those type of efforts allowed President Trump to take the ball and run with it when it came to fast-tracking a vaccine — something for which Alexander said he deserves credit.
“President Trump’s administration has had a spectacular success in producing six vaccines — or creating an environment for it — that will begin to come into Tennessee in December and could begin to help tens of thousands of health care workers not be impacted at all by this virus.”
Not that it couldn’t be better – but perhaps not as bad as people think
Long considered among those senators who are willing to compromise, Alexander said he believes Congress and the Senate in particular needs more bipartisanship — even though legislators who lead in that direction can come under “friendly fire.”
“Our role really is to take big complicated issues like civil rights or fixing schools or the great outdoors and come to a compromise,” Alexander said. “Talk something through until we can get something most of us can vote for. And if we can, then the country can live with it. So our job is to create more of the unity in the country, not to just go up there and shout at each other.
“It’s to say, ‘OK, civil rights — can we resolve this?’ and if we can the country may say, ‘OK, we can live with it, too.’”
Alexander said the acrimony — real as it is — might be a bit overblown in what he called the age of “internet Democracy.”
“When Lincoln was president, if he got mad he wrote a hot letter and put it in the drawer,” Alexander said. “If President Trump gets mad he pulls out his Twitter, and 72 million people see it and all of a sudden we’re fighting. And it drives us to the left and to the right.”
But not always, Alexander said. The Great American Outdoors Act, which will help fund backlogged maintenance at National Parks and provide more funding similar to the $30 million that helped acquire the majority of Rocky Fork’s 10,000 acres, brought together some unlikely bedfellows, for instance.
“Even you’ve got the Sierra Club and more of the liberal environmental groups working with President Trump, they normally don’t agree, but on this they did,” Alexander said. “So, what you try to do in the Senate is, you have your different opinions, but you look for areas of agreement. And if you look hard enough you can find them.”
The results just don’t always get much media attention, Alexander said, whether they’re related to the outdoors or dry but important issues surrounding education, research, and even fair compensation for songwriters — one of the accomplished pianist’s favorites.
“I say look at Washington DC like it were a split screen television. On the one side you see all the acrimony and the tweets and the fights. On the other side, Senator (Patty) Murray and I are fixing No Child Left Behind, and Senator (Diane) Feinstein from California and I are funding the Oak Ridge Laboratory in record funding.
“You don’t see that as often. If an airplane crashes that’s news. If it takes off safely that’s not.”
Asked to name one senator from each party he’s grown to admire, Alexander listed Feinstein and Washington state’s Murray as a couple of his favorite Democratic colleagues. The other Republican in addition to Blunt? Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“Most people don’t think of that because they would think of him as just a partisan, but what he tells me is ‘you bring me a bill that’s good for the country and that has bipartisan support and I’ll put it on the floor.'”
Alexander said Biden was a successful dealmaker in the senate as well — sometimes in league with McConnell — and that might — emphasis on might — just bode well for the next four years.
“He and Senator McConnell during the Obama years worked on two or three agreements – one of them was the tax bill that stopped taxes from going up further — so yes, they know how to get an agreement. Hopefully the parties will allow them to do that if they’re in those positions.”
Can the rancor be dialed back?
Alexander’s been called a RINO (Republican in Name Only) for his willingness to compromise. Progressive Democrats seem “loaded for bear” — to use an Appalachian term — when it comes to demanding some ideological purity in exchange for their help changing the presidency.
The media is filled with examples of outlets and personalities riding the coattails of partisanship and vitriol to clicks and fat paychecks.
Alexander said such trends are only dangerous to the future of the American experiment “if you pay too much attention.”
“I mean, these political pharisees who walk into Sunday school and say ‘I’m a better Christian than you are, I’m a better Republican than you are,’ I’ve never paid too much attention to them.”
Alexander suggested that more of his soon-to-be former colleagues — and more Americans in general — lay off the social media and take a cue from one of his mentors, the late Tennessee Senator Howard Baker.
“Senator Baker used to say the success in being a United States Senator was to be an eloquent listener, because the other fellow might be right. And that’s pretty good advice in our everyday lives. I mean, I try to listen. I might learn something, right?
“But even if I disagree with it I may have to say, ‘well, I don’t agree with you but if we’re going to do something together we’re going to have to do something you want to do and something I want to do and that both of us can live with. You can do that in a marriage, in a business, in a church and in the United States Senate.”
Alexander said he thinks a lot of senators know this and believe it. He said more of them than the public may realize are interested in being part of a Senate that accomplishes big things for the country.
“But they’re like most of America. We haven’t really figured out how do we live in this internet Democracy where all this arguing is going on. So I think most senators think that with all that talent in the senate and all the issues we have to resolve we could be doing a lot more of things like the Outdoors Act or like fixing No Child Left Behind – that there’s a lot more we should be doing.”
Alexander said America’s diversity is a great thing, but he doesn’t believe it’s what’s made America great. Rather, it’s been people’s willingness to meld that diversity into a successful whole.
“Our motto is e pluribus unum – from many, one – and we need a little less pluribus and a little more unum.”