What Howard Baker Left Us

What makes a successful politician?

We often don’t fully know the answer to that until they are gone from the scene, and even then the answer is not clear. Harry Truman, for example, left office in 1953 with abysmal polling numbers (22% approval according to Gallup), but in the decades since his departure his stock has risen considerably. I’m still not sure if that makes him a “good” or even a “successful” president. Perhaps a complimentary biography by David McCullough and recollections of his “give ‘em hell” persona outweigh the Republican charges of “Communism, Corruption and Korea.”

Whatever the reason, the Man from Independence is now listed among our greatest presidents.

Goldwater and Stevenson never made it to the White House, and Truman left office with dismal polling numbers.  Successful pols?
Barry Goldwater and Adlai Stevenson never made it to the White House, and Harry Truman left office with dismal polling numbers. But does that make them unsuccessful?

Another unanswerable question is: can a politician be “successful” without being a “winner?” I think of men like Barry Goldwater and Adlai Stevenson, whose presidential bids didn’t get them close to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, but who stayed true to their principles even if it meant rejection at the polls. As they were landslide losers for president, one could make the argument that they were not such great politicians. But does that mean they were unsuccessful politicians? Try telling that to their admirers.

As we enter 2015, those of us who obsess over politics consider this very issue when we think of the politicians who left us during the past year. And when I think of what’s missing with today’s politics — the refusal by many to engage in any modicum of civility — I think of Howard Baker, the former Senate majority leader, presidential candidate and White House chief of staff who died in June. He epitomized everything that was right with politics. Decency. Fairness. Generosity. Wonderful qualities of a human being. Less so if the goal is to become president. And Howard Baker never became president.

Baker's support for the Panama Canal Treaty under Carter probably doomed any chance he had at the GOP presidential nomination or to be Ronald Reagan's running mate.
Baker’s support for the Panama Canal Treaty under Carter probably doomed any chance he had at the GOP presidential nomination or to be Ronald Reagan’s running mate.

To make it to the Oval Office – or even to get the nomination — you need to inspire. You need to stir passions, to raise hopes, to appeal to emotions. That was not Howard Baker. Rather, he was more of a “let’s make the trains run on time” type of guy. Let’s make the Senate work.  In fact, if there was any emotion raised during Baker’s 1980 bid for the Republican presidential nomination, it was from his conservative opponents; they made sure that Baker’s support of President Carter’s Panama Canal treaties in 1978 had disqualified him from being president (or even becoming Ronald Reagan’s running mate). Truth be told, the party’s right-wing had been unhappy with Baker for years before that, going back to his performance during the 1973 Senate Watergate hearings, where there was a widespread sense his questions had hurt the Nixon cause.

But when the Republicans won control of the Senate in 1980, for the first time in more than a quarter of a century, it was Baker’s job, as majority leader, to keep his colleagues on the same page. That included things like voting to raise the debt ceiling (never a popular GOP position), or putting social issues such as abortion, busing and school prayer on the back burner. It wasn’t that President Reagan had abandoned conservative principles; it was that he needed first and foremost his economic plan to get through Congress. And Baker helped make it happen.

Uniting his Republican majority is what Baker was best known for. As the leader of the Senate GOP from 1977 until his retirement in 1984, he had to shepherd a Republican conference that included the likes of liberals such as Jacob Javits and Lowell Weicker and conservatives like Jesse Helms and John Tower. It’s a task that current House Speaker John Boehner has been bedeviled with, and one that incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell may have difficulties with as well. But Baker made it work.

Was Howard Baker a success? Well, he never made it to the presidency. He alienated many conservatives by supporting things like the Panama Canal treaty, the Clean Air Act and the Voting Rights Act. When the GOP took control of the Senate in 1980 after 26 years on the outs, he ignored pleas from those in the party to exact payback.

It may not be the kind of philosophy or tactics that could survive in today’s Republican Party.  He could certainly never be called an ideologue, even though he had a very conservative voting record.  Perhaps Baker is from an era that no longer exists.  But there was a feeling in June of 2014, that when we lost Howard Baker we lost something we desperately need in today’s politics.  Even if it was only his decency.  In that sense, he was a success.

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