Howard Baker, RIP

It doesn’t seem to have been noticed anywhere in the Australian media, but the death on Thursday of Howard Baker, former Republican leader in the United States Senate, should not be allowed to pass without comment.

Baker spent 18 years in the Senate and led the Republicans for the last eight of them: as minority leader when Jimmy Carter was president, and then majority leader, after the party unexpectedly won control of the Senate, for the whole of Ronald Reagan’s first term. After retiring from the Senate he served for a time as Reagan’s chief-of-staff and later was US ambassador to Japan. Prior to that he had been seriously considered for a seat on the Supreme Court and as running mate to then-president Gerald Ford in 1976.

The common theme of the obituaries for Baker – here’s the New York Times, for example, and here’s the New Republic – is that he was a type of Republican that you don’t get any more: sensible, constructive, a seeker of consensus. He was once known as “the great conciliator.” As the Times says, “Friendly and unfailingly courteous, he was popular with lawmakers in both parties, a kind of figure almost unrecognizable on Capitol Hill today.”

Yet it’s not that Baker was not, in his way, a conservative. He was himself a southerner – the first Republican senator elected in Tennessee since Reconstruction – and he always remained within the party mainstream, shepherding Reagan’s program of tax cuts and increased military spending through the Senate. His moderation was more a matter of style than substance, and it’s in style that the modern Republican Party is most conspicuously lacking.

Perhaps Baker’s most memorable time came relatively early in his career, when he was the ranking Republican on the Senate’s Watergate committee in 1973-74. More than anyone, he was the person who made the Watergate investigation a largely bipartisan affair, and it was he who first uttered the famous line, “What did the President know and when did he know it?”

Can one imagine a Republican leader now being so co-operative in investigating the crimes of a president from his own side? Anyone who approached politics like Baker would be hard pressed to win a GOP primary, much less be a contender for a leadership position.

For all its overt idolatry of Reagan, today’s Republican Party has reverted in spirit to an earlier time, to the “dirty tricks” win-at-all-costs mentality of the Nixon era. Ideology and courtesy are equally out of favor; tribalism is in. We have moved a long way from Howard Baker’s world.

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