Time Served in U.S. Senate has Tempered Lamar Alexander’s Views on Term Limits

Remember when Lamar Alexander was an avid supporter of congressional term limits?

Neither, it seems, does he.

The 12-year incumbent Republican U.S. Senator, now running for his third consecutive six-year term as a federal lawmaker, used to talk a lot about the need for a mandatory cap on how long politicians in Congress in could spend in office.

Term limits were, in fact, one of the most urgent reforms needed to make Washington, D.C. more accountable to the citizenry, Alexander postulated back in the 1990s.

Alexander’s past advocacy for limiting lawmakers’ tenure has led this election year to accusations of hypocrisy from his opponents.

Gordon Ball, the Democratic candidate for Senate, has hit him on it.  As did Joe Carr, Alexander’s GOP primary foe who lost out in August. Both accused the incumbent of reneging on an earlier-held principle that was once key to his philosophy on governing. They called him out for seeking a third term despite the “serve two terms and get out” credo of yesteryear he famously expressed in Lamar Alexander’s Little Plaid Book.

When the matter has come up in his presence, Alexander’s retort has been to suggest that the Little Plaid Book “advice” was geared more toward those seeking executive office. Alexander says he followed the rule when he served as governor from 1979-1987.

“I decided to run for a third term so that I could be a part of a Republican majority and move our country in a more conservative direction,” Alexander said during a press conference in Chattanooga last week. No mention was made of his current stance on congressional term limits, which a January 2013 Gallup poll indicated is favored by 75 percent of Americans.  Alexander also doesn’t appear to have signed on to term-limits resolution filed in 2013 by Louisiana Sen. David Vitter and 11 other Republicans. And he in fact voted against an unsuccessful 2012 call to alter the U.S. Constitution to enact congressional term limits, which his fellow Republican Tennessee senator, Bob Corker, supported.

In mid-October, at the only joint Ball-Alexander debate appearance of the campaign, Ball called the incumbent out on the issue. “I believe in term limits. If Sen. Alexander had believed in term limits, he would have introduced a bill, and we might have term limits by now,” Ball said.

Corker, on the other hand doesn’t seem to mind Alexander’s change of heart. He heaped praise on Alexander for not missing “a single day or a single hour in using opportunities to make our country stronger.”

“I’m glad he’s going to be back to serve,” Corker said.

The Presidential Primary Years

Advancing term limits was in fact a central platform plank of Lamar Alexander’s presidential campaigns in the waning years of the 20th Century, when he would advertise himself as the man best suited to “lead the Republican revolution into the next century.” His rallying cry for handling over-active, self-important politicians in Washington was to “Cut their pay and send them home!”

Alexander promised he “would lead the national call for term limits and an end to the million dollar pensions that reward members of Congress for making politics a lifetime career.”

“We need a Congress that expects less from Washington and more from us,” Alexander argued. “Therefore I favor term limits. I favor an end to the million-dollar Congressional pensions. And I would cut the pay of Congress and send them home for half a year.”

He supported a constitutional amendment to limit service in the U.S. Senate to 12 years and six years in the House. And he had little patience for intra-party rivals like Kansas Republican Bob Dole, the 1996 GOP presidential nominee, who as U.S. Senate majority leader Alexander sharply criticized for coming up with “convenient excuses to do nothing” about instituting term limits for federal lawmakers.

“Any attempt to sweep term limits under the congressional rug is a dangerous and disingenuous strategy,” said Alexander in October 1995.

At about the same time, Alexander also testified before Congress on the term limits issue. He divulged that during his second term as Tennessee’s governor, from 1983-1987, he was “a little more concerned about whether at the end of eight years I would have been able to accomplish something useful for my state rather than to worry about whether what I was trying to accomplish might have helped me get reelected yet to a third term.”

In early 1996 the New York Times took note of Alexander’s increasing frustration with the lack of Republican leadership focus on term limits, which had been a critical plank in the “Contract With America” two years prior. In a campaign radio spot Alexander lamented, “You can listen to these candidates from Washington all day long and you’ll never hear the words ‘term limits.’”

He continued his term-limits advocacy after his 1996 primary loss and leading into his unsuccessful 2000 run. Lamar Alexander’s Little Plaid Book was published in 1998.

Two 4-Year Terms As Governor — A TN First

Just before this year’s August primary, Alexander told TNReport that serving two terms and leaving office is “exactly what I did as governor — I wrote the book in the 1990s.” He echoed those comments in the defense given for his third-term ambitions at the Oct. 16 Tennessee Farm Bureau candidate’s forum.

The truth of the matter is that Lamar Alexander was actually the first governor in the history of the Volunteer State to lead the state for eight consecutive years. And he was the first governor since the 1950s to serve more than a four-year stint at a time.

In 1953, Tennessee voters ratified a constitutional amendment that changed the consecutive length of time a person could hold the office of governor from three successive two-year terms to a single four-year term. But in a March 1978 special election, the state’s voters OK’d a new constitutional amendment that allowed for two consecutive terms, thus lengthening a governor’s potential time in office to eight years.

Alexander, who was sworn in as the state’s chief executive three days prior to his scheduled inauguration because of a scandal surrounding the sale of pardons to prisoners by outgoing Democratic Governor Ray Blanton, took office as Tennessee’s governor in January 1979. He was re-elected in 1982. He left the chief executive’s office as mandated by the Tennessee Constitution in 1987.

Alexander later served as president of the University of Tennessee from 1988-1991, and as George H.W. Bush’s U.S. Secretary of Education from 1991-1993.

Following his two unsuccessful attempts to win the Republican nod for the White House, in 1996 and 2000, Alexander declared that he was done with electoral politics. According to an excerpt from the book, Midterm Madness: The Elections of 2002, when Alexander withdrew from the 2000 presidential race after a poor showing at the Iowa Straw Poll in August 1999, he declared it was his “last campaign for public office.”

However, Alexander stepped foot onto the campaign trail in 2002 following the Republican Fred Thompson’s announcement he was stepping down from the U.S. Senate. Alexander said in 2002 he had decided he wanted to serve the nation again after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and with Thompson’s retirement a “position would be opening that I could be effective at.”

Alexander won election to the U.S. Senate in 2002, and was re-elected in 2008.