Ballot Box

Sympathy for Lamar

One of the worst features of American politics is the way we treat decent people who fail to win elections. Examples include Michael Dukakis after 1988 and, yes, George H.W. Bush after 1992.

Now the press is starting to administer this public shaming in advance. The guy on the receiving end this week is Lamar Alexander, widely depicted as a wounded horse awaiting his coup de grace in the Ames straw poll on Saturday. Reporters have been flocking to Alexander’s campaign like crows to road-kill. Recent articles in the New Republic , the Washington Post, and the New York Times milk the Alexander death-watch for pathos. Despite six years of campaigning, Iowans don’t know who he is. He’s broke. He can’t get the air-conditioning in his car to work! The collective message: What a pathetic loser!

I myself had some harsh words about Lamar during the 1996 campaign. I didn’t like the way he sold out his own legacy of decent, moderate Republicanism for an ersatz, anti-government populism. But since Newt Gingrich went the way of all political flesh, Lamar has returned to his sounder instincts. This year, he has been espousing the kinds of centrist positions he took when he served as a (very fine) governor of Tennessee and later as secretary of education. On the environment, Alexander calls himself a Teddy Roosevelt Republican who advocates spending more on National Parks. On education, he has backed away from the conservative panacea of vouchers and focused on the more realistic reform of charter schools. Alexander is short on novelty and excitement but long on intelligence and dedication, as his six years of futile campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire show. He flopped this time, but not because of any defect in character.

Assuming Alexander’s campaign does come to an end next week as predicted, we must ask why it never got off the ground. I think the reason is fairly obvious. Another moderate Republican with a famous name and far more money squashed him like a bug. By offering “electability” as his chief selling point, Alexander helped make the case for Bush. W. makes Lamar redundant. But that’s no reason to despise a candidate who tried hard, played fair, and will surely make a gracious exit.