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MARCH 12, 2008

Rocky Top

In certain towns in Scotland, there exist museums filled with relics
of the rebel Bonnie Prince Charlie--pieces of his tartan, portraits,
goblets, scraps of things he once touched, and rings inscribed with
king charles iii, as if he really had become King of England
instead of dying in exile in Rome.Unbeknownst to most local tour guides, a similar kind of museum
exists in Washington. It's tucked away on the fourth floor of the
Dirksen Senate Office Building: the museum to the
not-quite-presidency of Lamar Alexander. Here, in quarters
otherwise known as his Senate office, you'll find the red plaid
shirt that the journalists covering Alexander's 1996 and 2000
presidential campaigns disdained, now hanging proudly in a gallery
case, both shirt and case on loan from the Smithsonian. To its
right is a giant map of Tennessee marked with the 1,000-mile route
Alexander walked to become governor, a caper he then tried in New
Hampshire in 1996, where he came in third behind Pat Buchanan and
Bob Dole. Walk down the long hall staffers call the "West Wing,"
past a couch upholstered in red plaid, and into Alexander's
personal office. There stands the curator of this
Almost-Presidential Library himself, smoothing his fingers along a
hand- painted chess set. "An Iowa supporter made this for me in
1999," Alexander explains. One side's king reads "Gore"; the
other's reads "Lamar."

In the annals of U.S. history, Alexander's presidential ambition
wasn't so outrageous. As a highly successful governor of Tennessee,
he was certainly qualified. Besides, he only ran twice; Henry Clay
ran for president five times. But his love of exclamation marks,
his claim to be a radical outsider, and his relentless
branding--sometimes even the dogs on the trail wore plaid--earned
him indifference from voters and laughter from the press.

But, since he took over Fred Thompson's Senate seat in 2003,
Alexander has been quietly remaking himself. Not, it seems, by
altogether rejecting the career arc he had in mind, but by
bypassing the presidency and going directly to post-presidential
healer. Like Jimmy Carter, the senior President Bush, or Bill
Clinton before Hillary's campaign, Alexander's mandate now is to get
the warring factions in the Senate to beat their swords into
plowshares.

But today's Senate is hostile territory for a prophet of peace.
"He's basically dealing with a political dynamic [in which] the
strategy of Republicans is to throw molasses in the way of
everything," says veteran Congress-watcher Norm Ornstein. These
days, Republican leader Mitch McConnell fires at Democrats with a
record volley of filibusters and an insurgent group of new
conservative senators, led by South Carolina's Jim DeMint and
Oklahoma's Tom Coburn, fires at McConnell from the right on
earmarks and immigration. Alexander wants it to stop. "We have so
many practical solutions on things like health care, if we stop
complaining," he remarks.

Friends suggest that Alexander's incarnation as elder mediator suits
him. "I think he's evolved into a statesman kind of role--he's
older now. Lamar fits that [ex-presidential] mold now," says Bob
Davis, a former Tennessee GOP chair. But it may turn out that, like
so many other well-meaning and harmony-seeking ex-presidents,
Alexander will find he also lacks the power to stop the
bloodletting.

When Alexander was elected chairman of the Republican Conference
last December, the third-highest leadership position in the Senate
GOP, he won the nasty job of burnishing the public image of a party
in private turmoil. His first chance to sell his vision was to be
at a mid-January retreat to which all Republican senators were
invited. But, just weeks after Alexander occupied his office,
DeMint and Coburn announced that they would hold a press conference
the day after Alexander's retreat to put out their own
"Conservative Agenda to Secure America's Future."

This ten-point legislative plan, which was to demand that the United
States withhold dues from the United Nations and end earmarks
altogether, laid down the foundations for a rebel Republican
message shop, and it was a slap in the face for Alexander. But it
didn't come out of nowhere. Amid the post-defeat despair last year,
DeMint and Coburn--bomb-throwers fresh to the Senate from the
House--saw a sweet chance to pull the floundering Senate GOP to the
right. DeMint flexed his muscles on immigration, blowing up the
spring compromise bill nearly single-handedly, while Coburn flexed
his on earmarks. Their talent for rousing support among bloggers
and talk-radio hosts and their disdain for bipartisanship--"I
didn't come here to make friends, and I haven't been disappointed,"
DeMint told me--made them powerful. "You can only pass bills if you
clear it with the two of them!" hisses a senior Democratic aide. "We
need to calm down around here," Trent Lott begged DeMint on the
Senate floor this summer.

Alexander--who still speaks proudly of his ability, as governor, to
find common ground with Tennessee's Democratic legislature--was
horrified by what he calls the Senate's escalating "playpen
politics" on both sides of the aisle. He decided to try to teach
Republicans to lay down their guns. When the Republican senators
gathered inside the Library of Congress for his daylong retreat, he
projected on a screen a slogan that threw a bone to both
conservatives and moderates: rally republicans, attract
independents. He showed them examples of bipartisan bills
Republicans were already co-sponsoring. And, in an effort at
dialogue, he had moderates like Maine's Susan Collins give the
speech she would give in Lewiston, to help deep-red senators
understand the pressures the purples were under. ("We needed
that--we get in a bubble around here," raves one Republican aide.)

De-escalation is always a two-steps-forward, one-step-back kind of
process. During the retreat, from deep inside the Library of
Congress, somebody e-mailed out a nasty report on Alexander to the
conservative blog RedState, which promptly posted that Alexander
wanted the Republicans to simply "Pass Democrat legislation,"
setting off a flurry of angst within conservative blogs and Senate
offices.

"The first thing he did was go over and meet directly, individually"
with the conservative senators who were complaining, recalls
Senator Bob Corker. To mollify Coburn, Alexander helped McConnell
create a special earmarks commission, in which Coburn could
confront the party's premier earmarker, Thad Cochran, face to face.
To Richard Burr, another in the conservative faction, Alexander
gave the opportunity to help roll out a spring health care
initiative that would include parts of an Every American Insured
Act that Burr floated last year. "The frustration comes when a
senator is isolated," says Alexander. "We have to give them a
stake." And, indeed, in a phone call with Alexander, DeMint agreed
not to hold his competing-agenda press conference, for the sake of
unity.

To explain his aims in the Senate, Alexander speaks passionately of
evangelical guru Rick Warren, whom he heard speak in late January at
the National Cathedral. Warren called for a "second Reformation" in
which mainline churches, evangelical churches, and Muslims would
"learn to get along" and join together to do good works. This role
of post-presidential peace-broker seems a much better fit for the
friendly, centrist Alexander than were his stints as a hardcore
conservative and a radical populist presidential candidate.

But, like so many elder statesmen before him, Alexander may find
he's wandered into a war with much deeper roots than he imagined.
The battle between the conservatives and the moderates in the
Senate is a fundamental one over how to understand their 2006
electoral demise: Did it happen because they sold out the values of
the base, or because they ignored moderates on Iraq? The moderate
faction loves Alexander, who, among other things, sponsored a
centrist Iraq bill with Democrat Ken Salazar last year. But, when I
ask an aide to one of the conservative senators, "Can Alexander's
efforts to reach out to you guys have success?" he just lets out an
incredulous laugh.

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