A Strange but True Journey Inside the GOP Power Vortex With Senator Lamar Alexander

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A Strange but True Journey Inside the GOP Power Vortex With Senator Lamar Alexander


No hacking involved. Just a long flight with no screen protection

On Wednesday, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) said goodbye to the chamber in a farewell speech ahead of his retirement after 18 years, advising his colleagues “to seek broadly backed, durable solutions to the nation’s problems rather than succumb to easy partisanship,” as The Washington Post put it.

His ally and party leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), choked up with emotion over his friend’s departure — and was roundly trolled on Twitter for his comparable lack of tears for COVID-19 victims. On MSNBC, Lawrence O’Donnell dismissed the moment in disgust, calling Alexander a useless senator who “signed onto the Mitch McConnell cult” and said that both were “spineless enablers… quislings who cower in the shadow of Donald Trump.”

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Those were harsh words, but they reflected my own unexpected glimpse into the raw politics of Alexander’s world. I decided I was ready to share this experience from the summer of 2019 that shocked me. Here it is.

Wearing a sport jacket over a checkered shirt and sensible rubber-soled shoes, Alexander joined me in the first row on Alaska Airlines flight 85 to San Francisco.

He had work to do. He pulled out a phone and MacBook Air, just like mine, and typed in his ID: Lamar Alexander. I thought: Can this be the stalwart of the Republican leadership for decades — a senator since 2003, former Tennessee governor and former presidential candidate? I quickly looked him up on my phone. It was.

On the laptop beside me, up popped a document that contained all his meetings of the day, every conversation, every issue on the Republican radar. Health care. The environment. His open seat in the 2020 election since he had decided to not seek re-election. Speeches upcoming. An op-ed in progress.

I could read everything, every single thing, over his shoulder. There were notes about conversations with McConnell, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and “the president.” About his trip to Bohemian Grove, the secret Republican retreat near San Francisco.

Alexander was writing a log of his day, a kind of political diary. Any moment I expected him to glance at me and glare me back to my own business. To my rising astonishment, he did not. And so for the hours of his work, I was a fly on the wall of Alexander’s brain.

He was writing about who should run for his Senate seat in 2020. He and McConnell wanted to tap William Hagerty, the private equity investor and current U.S. ambassador to Japan, he wrote. Like Alexander, Hagerty went to Vanderbilt University and has a law degree.

“I told him (McConnell) that on my call with the president he was non-committal about endorsing Hagerty,” Alexander wrote. “And without that, Hagerty might not run.” He noted that “Marsha” — Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee’s other senator — intended to talk directly to Trump about the matter. McConnell, Alexander wrote, would talk to Hagerty. The majority leader is “concerned he could have problems in Kansas and Alabama.” (As it turned out, Hagerty ran and won the seat last month.)

Alexander turned to discussing what provisions of a health care bill he would put on the floor of the Senate. “The tension is the president is willing to go quite far on prescription drug prices and McConnell is not (sic) reluctant to push the pharma companies too far. There are a number of republicans willing to take serious steps to reduce prices,” he wrote. He noted the plan was to “slow walk” any health care legislation to mollify Trump — who still wanted to try and knock down Obamacare — while also not allowing it to become an issue in the 2020 campaign. (No legislation on this passed.)

After a while, Alexander turned to writing an op-ed criticizing Democrats for holding up the confirmation of Trump cabinet appointees. The op-ed — typed rapidly in hunt-and-peck style — bemoaned the number of “acting” cabinet secretaries and blamed the situation on obstructionist Democrats who kept McConnell from bringing nominees to a final vote. (The day after our flight, Alexander Acosta resigned as Labor Secretary, another example of Trump administration turnover that had nothing to do with the Democrats.)

It was all I could do to lean over and note: Wasn’t McConnell the most obstructionist politician ever to operate during the Obama administration? But I didn’t. Instead I watched as Alexander, savvy and experienced, circled back to revise his first paragraph: “Did Republicans do this under Obama? Maybe but this is different,” he wrote.

There were so many things I wanted to ask the senator. How did he really feel about Trump? How could he tolerate the government’s actions at the border, separating families and caging children? What was his take — his real take — on the future of the Republican Party? I said nothing.

I concluded there was no purpose, sadly. Seated beside Alexander I had a glimpse inside hardcore power politics at the highest levels. Politics, not governing. The exercise of power. It broke through the noise of my everyday, 24/7 avalanche of news and non-Washington life. Here was a view into the wielding of power by a general in the Republican army. Ready to serve.

Alexander spent every waking moment of that six-and-a-half-hour flight pounding away at the opposition and serving the directives of McConnell. There was not a word about policy. About his constituents. About the state of the country. Or even about family. But that seems to reflect the priorities of the Republican Party in the Trump era.

Sharon Waxman