My Guy: Why My Presidential Candidate Is Mr. Right

Article excerpt

As of June, nine political leaders had thrown their hats in the ring as candidates for the Republican nomination to challenge Bill Clinton in 1996. Policy Review asked a conservative supporter of each one to explain why he backed his chosen candidate.

Daniel Casse on Lamar Alexander

Lamar Alexander is an unorthodox, populist, and persuasive Republican leader. That is why I gladly moved from Washington to Nashville to work on his presidential campaign, and why I believe he will be the party's nominee in 1996.

Our legislative branch's leadership of national government is a temporary (albeit fascinating) phenomenon. But we need our next president to set the agenda, not take his cues from Congress. Conservatives should be looking for a candidate who can present a bold design for government along with the ability to execute it.

Lamar Alexander has the imagination, energy, and executive background to do both. The major themes of his campaign -- growth, freedom, and personal responsibility -- are indisputably conservative. But what distinguishes him is his unorthodox approach to politics, his populist style of governance, and his skills of persuasion.

Unorthodox. In 1978, Alexander was elected governor of Tennessee, only the third Republican to win that office this century. Nothing that followed was typical, either. He began his crusade to improve Tennessee's pitiful public-school system by introducing merit pay and master teachers, relatively radical notions that weakened the teacher unions. The National Education Association fought him vigorously. He ignored warnings that it was hopeless, fought back, and won.

Alexander broke new ground on other issues. At a time when most governors were using state airplanes to fly to Washington, Alexander closed Tennessee's D.C. office altogether. He chided other governors for behaving like senators. As early as 1981, he advised President Reagan to end the federal role in education. Four years later, he called two relatively unknown congressmen named Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott and invited them to join a small group of GOP governors to plot a united strategy for second stage of the Reagan Revolution.

He showed the same verve when he arrived at the Department of Education in 1991. By then, the intellectual excitement of the Bill Bennett years had passed, and the Bush administration's school-choice agenda amounted to little more than photo-ops with local education activists. Alexander understood that school choice -- despised by country- club Republicans and misunderstood by most suburbanites -- was at risk of becoming a political loser. His "America 2000" program was a true grass-roots initiative that breathed life into education reform. Conventional wisdom dubbed it a quirky agenda that offered little federal legislation. But it tapped into a decentralization movement that remains the only path to school choice. His 1992 school-choice bill was a true voucher program for public, private, and parochial schools, but the Democrats in Congress made sure it never came to a vote.

Populist. Alexander's well-publicized assault on Congress -- "cut their pay and send them home" -- is no mere slogan. It reveals his deep sympathy with the populism that has justifiably become the bedrock of conservative politics. An unapologetic champion of term limits, he sincerely believes that a citizen legislature would transform the character of the federal government. With none of Ross Perot's demagoguery, Alexander offers a mature, but no less revolutionary, brand of popular discontent with government in Washington.

While some Republicans still waver on the wisdom of block grants, Alexander is advancing the idea both philosophically and practically. He suggests ending the federal role in education, welfare, and job training altogether. He applauded the Supreme Court decision striking down the 1990 Gun-Free Schools Zone Act, an attempt to federalize local responsibility that every GOP senator supported. …