Alexander plays a winning tune

Can “little platoons” of Americans win battles the “big battalions” of the federal government have been losing?

Lamar Alexander intends to find out. The soft-spoken, mild-mannered man from Maryville, Tenn., joins U.S. Sens. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Phil Gramm, R-Texas, as one of the GOP’s Big Three presidential contenders.

But unlike the acerbic Senate majority leader and the in-your-face Texan, Alexander is a user-friendly presidential hopeful who wears well.

He believes Americans have ceded too much power to professional politicians in Congress and to professional experts in Washington’s public and private bureaucracies. “Cut their pay and send them home,” he says of Congress, even though the Republicans now control it. Alexander’s conservative, upbeat, vision-driven philosophy transcends party lines. There are two implications: First, Alexander could inherit Democratic and independent voters who supported Jack Kemp until Kemp’s recent decision not to run. Second, Alexander is perhaps the most electable Republican, particularly if the 1996 election has a third party candidate who would split the Republican vote.

Unlike many modern conservatives, Alexander defines his politics as much by issues of society and governance as he does by economic issues. A successful businessman who is also a former governor, cabinet officer and university president, Alexander has a “feel” for the capacity of grassroots institutions to solve problems. He believes human-scale institutions — families, neighborhoods. churches, synagogues and voluntary civic institutions — are most likely to find solutions that work.

When government power is needed, Alexander believes it should be exercised by the lowest possible level. Americans, he thinks, have had it with Washington’s bureaucratic arrogance — whether it is liberal arrogance or conservative arrogance.

Unlike Vice President Al Gore and many big government “reformers” who believe people want a more effficient, more effective, reinvented government, Alexander is betting that people want smaller, less costly and less intrusive government.

In this regard, Alexander is cut from the same cloth as the 15th century British statesman and conservative philosopher Edmund Burke, who prized human freedom and the capacity of society’s “little platoons” to solve problems. Just as Burke urged his government to conciliate with the American colonies, stop the slave trade, improve English-Irish relations and denounce a French Revolution that terrorized individuals, attacked religion and assembled “enlightened people” to build a new social order top-down, Alexander stands in opposition to national “expertism” that has infected nearly every nook and cranny of American life.

So Alexander gives Americans a more Jeffersonian kind of conservatism. His focus on power and freedom is sometimes a hard sell with reporters and pundits who want to know “what’s your program?” But Alexander is saying that the time has come to replace problem-solving by cadres of professionals in big bureaucracies with problem-solving by ordinary people in grassroots, human-scale institutions.

Alexander’s new twist on the old idea of “popular sovereignty” may resonate with an electorate that is also ready for a grown-up president whose integrity temperament and discipline are equal to the job.

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