Reading the obituaries of Howard Baker – the Senate Republican leader known in his day as “the great conciliator” – is like visiting an ancient civilization. With the emphasis on civil.
Baker, who died yesterday at 88, inhabited (and frequently dominated) a world that has all but vanished, a world where Republicans and Democrats broke bread for the common good, a world where partisans ultimately set their grievances aside when there was essential work to be done.
In other words, Baker – a Tennessean who led the Senate GOP for eight years, in the minority and the majority – was everything that the tea party hates. A self-described “moderate conservative,” today he’d be tagged by the zealots as a “RINO,” he’d be twitter-bombed as a squishy sellout, and most likely he’d be run out of town on a rail.
Check out some of these obit passages: Baker was known for his “equanimity and knack for fashioning compromises.” (Strike one.) Baker displayed “a willingness to break with party ideology and work with the opposition.” (Strike two.) Baker “was not above herding feuding partisans into a room and keeping them there until they came to an agreement.” (Strike three.)
He fought for a variety of conservative causes – he said that school busing for integration was “a grievous piece of mischief” – but he had an instinctive respect for the national interest. When scientists warned that air pollution (a manmade crisis) was imperiling public health, Baker, respecting the science, helped draft the Clean Air Act, which sparked the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. (In today’s parlance, the likely tea party ad: “Baker caves to Democrat big-government job-killing tax-hiking program!”)
In 2007, well into retirement, Baker co-founded the Bipartisan Policy Center, one of those think tanks that diagnoses our political ills and offers solutions that today’s partisans ignore. Just last week, the center released some high-minded ideas for making things better: Increase the number of open primaries, to bring in more independents and curb the zealots’ influence; abolish gerrymandering, the practice of creating safe Republican and Democratic districts (which makes congressmen more averse to compromise); severely limit the Senate’s use of filibusters to block bills; require the Senate and House to schedule simultaneous five-day work weeks; compel the president to meet monthly with congressional leaders.
None of that stuff is likely to happen, of course. Howard Baker’s era is dead and gone; all too often, the mentality today is articulated by people like Chris McDaniel, the tea-party loser this week in Mississippi. During his Senate bid, he vowed: “I’m not going there to reach across the aisle and compromise. That’s not the kind of person I am.” There are many more like him in the pipeline.
Baker, speaking at a forum in 2011, lamented what has happened in Washington since his tour of duty ended: “The lack of civility, the lack of respect for the other person’s point of view, has had a corrosive effect on our ability to formulate solutions.” He said that “the essence of leadership” is not to reflexively obstruct, but, rather, “to hear and understand…what the country has to say, and try to translate that into effective policy.”
Godspeed, senator. You did what you could.
Speaking of bipartisanship, a coalition of political and economic bigwigs from across the ideological spectrum released a new report this week on climate change. The forecast is very dire. Let’s hear from a couple Republicans.
George Schultz, Treasury Secretary under Nixon and Secretary of State under Reagan: “The big ice sheets are melting; something’s happening.” He said that we need to act with all deliberate speed, to protect the economy as well as the ecosystem: “I say we should take out an insurance policy.”
Henry Paulson, Treasury Secretary under George W Bush: “I actually do believe that we’re at a tipping point with the planet. A lot of things are going to happen that none of us are going to like to see.”
But what about all the climate change deniers who clog today’s GOP and can’t fathom reality? Doonsebury has their number. See what happens when a clueless troll goes to the doctor.
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