Alexander has vision for us all
by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, February 1, 1996
Republican presidential aspirant Lamar Alexander was in Denver this week, another in a string of visits to important post-New Hampshire Republican primary states.
With the campaign of Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole collapsing in New Hampshire, Iowa and Arizona, where rookie Steve Forbes is already in first place or challenging Dole in most of the polls, people are for the first time taking a look at the rest of the Republican field. That’s a good thing. For too long, public attention to the Republican aspirants was riveted first on Colin Powell’s flirtation with running and then on Steve Forbes’ meteoric rise in New Hampshire and onto the covers of the national news weeklies.
But despite the great appeal of Forbes’ fresh face, his clear message of a resurgent America and his flat tax approach to simplifying America’s complex and invidious tax system, there are growing questions: Can Forbes withstand the scrutiny of his public and private life that is beginning to unfold? Are the American people willing to elect a president who is untested as a public leader? Would Forbes have coattails long enough and strong enough to help resurgent Republican congressional candidates achieve a veto-proof Congress? Can Steve Forbes beat Bill Clinton?
Many think not. And Lamar Alexander, the first choice of some, but almost everyone’s second choice, is now beginning to be heard. Many feel that’s good for Republicans because, they think, the former Tennessee governor stands alone among Republicans in one key area: he is the only candidate with a comprehensive vision for America.
Alexander, they say, is the only candidate who understands that the next president must lead in creating a new understanding of the respective roles of citizens, communities and the government — and, as he said in Denver, that the coming presidential election campaign must be about citizenship, not government; about communities, not budget bills; about what goes on in families, neighborhoods, churches and schools, not about what goes on in Congress.
In a presidential election that is likely to be a vision contest, the Bob Dole-Beltway vision is a non-starter. The Steve Forbes vision, stuck on economic and tax issues, is too narrow. The Phil Gramm vision is viewed by too many as too mean-spirited.
By contrast, the comprehensive vision of Alexander — including his commitment to school choice, fundamental tax reform to provide two low rates and eliminate most deductions, and his deep understanding of how the “devolution revolution” can achieve welfare and health-care reform, increase public safety and strengthen the role of families and voluntary, civic institutions in American life — may be a winner for Republicans of all regions. Plus, Alexander is a tested executive and may be the only Republican who can compete with Bill Clinton when 40 million Americans tune in to the presidential debates in October.
As historian and LBJ biographer Robert Dallek has said, successful presidents have a large vision of where they want to take the country. They also have great ability to use language to give life to our better dreams and impulses: to preserve the Union (Lincoln); to make the world safe for democracy (Wilson); to contain communism (Truman).
Lamar Alexander may soon have his chance to communicate his vision to a larger audience. If he communicates to the nation as he communicated in Denver, the 1996 primary season may be more interesting than we anticipated.