Lamar Alexander made two things clear during a stop in Memphis on Thursday: (1) That he's running for reelection to the U.S. Senate seat he won back in 2002; (2) That he's determined to do so from the political center, with minimal concessions to the orthodoxies of the Bush administration.
Both in remarks made to a sizeable crowd of well-wishers at the Oaksedge Center in East Memphis and in the course of an interview afterward, Republican Alexander issued what sounded at times like a virtual declaration of political independence.
On Iraq, for example: "We need to get out of the combat business and into the support business," the first-term senator and former governor said. Alexander said, "We've got to get the Iraq Study Group report off the shelf and use it for something other than a bookend." The report, by a blue-chip bipartisan panel, advocated staged withdrawal from active combat operations in Iraq.
Of the current flap over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales: "The administration is guilty of excessive partisanship. And the Democrats are guilty of excessive partisanship in response."
On Bush's recess appointment of Sam Fox as ambassador to Belgium, bypassing Senate confirmation: "The president has the right to do that sort of thing, but it's inadvisable. Maybe if they [the executive branch] want to take some of our powers, we should take some of theirs."
In his remarks to the crowd, Alexander pointedly reminded them of his experience as governor of Tennessee, when, he said, bipartisanship was the rule - beginning in 1978 when Democratic governor Ned McWherter helped get a newly elected Alexander sworn in early. That was to forestall potentially illegal pardons of state prisoners by his Democratic predecessor, Ray Blanton.
"I want to be one of the grownups who can work across party lines in the Senate to get things accomplished for people's benefit," said Alexander, noting that he and Connecticut Democrat Joe Lieberman have been presiding this year over a weekly bipartisan breakfast in Washington.
"We need to spend more time like this working together on what really counts and less time on petty, kindergarten games," Alexander said. "I believe the most recent election was as much about the conduct of business in Washington as it was about the conduct of the war in Iraq."
Recalling McWherter's 1978 statement, "We are Tennesseans first," Alexander said, "I'd like to hear a fvew more people in Washington say, 'We are Americans first.'"
Asked about the presidential prospects of his former Senate colleague from Tennessee, Alexander smiled and said, "The less he does, the more the buzz." Thompson, who now stars in TV's Law and Order, has acknowledged an interest in running but has so far taken no steps to do so. As Alexander, himself a two-time presidential candidate, noted, a significant draft effort is now underway, however. "I heard from my former Iowa campaign director who was interested in Fred."