Sen. Lamar Alexander shrugs off any suggestion that he has been “liberated” to forcefully challenge President Trump like some of his departing colleagues.
“I’m not going to be changing my tune,” Alexander said in an interview a couple of days after announcing he would retire after 2020.
The Tennessee Republican is independent-minded and respected on both sides of the aisle, but he has no intention of turning into a raging anti-Trump conservative in the mold of retiring Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) or Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
Alexander happily recounted a conversation with Trump the night before he publicly announced he would not seek reelection in 2020. He said the president asked him to serve another 20 years. The next day, both Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) paid tribute to Alexander on the Senate floor.
It was the rare trifecta of political balance that epitomized his three terms in the Senate. “I’d like to keep things about like that, I think I can get a lot more done in that kind of environment,” he said.
Alexander, 78, will spend his last two years serving as an example of knowing how to go out on a high note. “There’s a certain amount of self-awareness for that. I’ve always admired people who know when it’s time to step aside,” Alexander said.
During his annual fishing trip to Canada in August, he thought about a career that spanned five decades in Tennessee and national politics.
“Time for somebody else to do it,” Alexander told himself, although he still believed he was at the top of his game. “Athletes have that same decision to make, chief executives have that same decision to make, lots of people do. And some stay too long, and some leave when they’re batting .400.”
In baseball, .400 puts you in the Hall of Fame. Alexander declined to single out any colleagues who stayed too long in the Senate, but it’s clear that had an impact on his decision.
Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) won a seventh Senate term in 2014, at the age of 77, and earlier this year had to retire amid a physical and mental decline. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) won a seventh term in 2012, at 78, and decided to retire this year. Lately he has struggled to articulate some points, leading to staff statements more fully describing his thoughts.
Alexander, in fine health, did not want to risk tainting his reputation. Another term was an “eight-year commitment,” he said — two years to run for reelection and six years to serve out the term. At that point, he would be 86.
He has known McConnell for decades, but he only hinted to the leader months ago that he would likely retire. The two men did not seek each other’s advice about their own futures.
“It’s such a personal decision,” Alexander said.
As of now, McConnell, 76, is running hard for a seventh term — which would end when he is 84.
Alexander wasn’t afraid of a challenge from a hard-line conservative in a GOP primary. “I actually like defeating evil forces where I can find them in politics,” Alexander said.
That’s about as intemperate as Alexander will ever sound, which makes him an outlier in this political era of shouting into the winds of cable news and social media. But that style has made him indispensable inside the Senate, where some things have not changed.
“It’s still based on relationships,” he said.
Alexander, a former Tennessee governor who twice ran for president, built strong enough relationships early in his Senate career to climb to the No. 3 post in leadership.
But he voluntarily jumped off the leadership ladder in 2012 so that he could refashion himself as an across-the-aisle dealmaker. He worked with Schumer on easing the cumbersome process for confirming presidential nominees and then spent the past four years chairing the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
There, he racked up a series of big legislative wins with a Democratic partner, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington. The duo rewrote elementary and high school education laws, won approval for a major medical research bill, and crafted a massive package to fight opioid abuse.
Alexander remains optimistic because of these accomplishments. He had his staff print “Split Screen TV” cards: One side has a picture of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and the timeline of his bitter confirmation process, the other a list of bipartisan bills that won approval over those five weeks. The list includes a bill protecting songwriters’ rights that is near and dear to the classic and country pianist’s heart.
“This is where you find me,” Alexander said, pointing to the side with accomplishments. “That’s why I’m not in the news all the time. I’m not over here, I’m over here.”
But the Kavanaugh confirmation consumed American politics and drowned out public recognition of Alexander’s bipartisan work.
Just as those hearings started in September, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) returned as an interim replacement for the late senator John McCain.
“It’s like I’m parachuting into a war zone,” Kyl, who had served three terms in the Senate and then retired at the end of 2012, said in a recent interview.
He said the Senate is very different than it was just six years ago. Experiences like the Kavanaugh confirmation and now the partial government shutdown make it harder for people like Alexander to do their work.
“Each time that it happens, it’s a little harder to bounce back,” Kyl said.
Alexander has two years to prove Kyl wrong.
While overcoming a tough primary challenge in 2014, Alexander told the story of two famous Tennesseans who went to Texas to fight for independence: Davy Crockett and Sam Houston.
Crockett is celebrated for his bravery at the Alamo, but Mexican troops slaughtered those Texans. Houston retreated to higher ground and later defeated Antonio López de Santa Anna’s army and won independence for Texas.
Alexander has Houston’s walking stick hanging in his office. He wants Republicans to think more like the first governor of Texas and less like Crockett.
He’s just not sure which side will win in the long run.
“Crockett and Houston were both brave. Houston was more judicious,” he said, pausing to consider the metaphor. “Although, Crockett’s more celebrated really among popular culture.”