When then-Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker was at the zenith of his political power and influence in Washington it was said that if his Senate colleagues were charged with secretly selecting a president they would have chosen Baker. He was that respected on both sides of the political aisle.
Baker was a moderate Republican when the GOP had such a thing and his influence on the Senate and American politics from the 1960’s to the 1990’s was significant. He was both minority and majority leader, could have been on the Supreme Court had he wanted the appointment and after the Senate served as Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff and later as ambassador to Japan.
A fine recent book on the Senate during Baker’s hay day makes the case that the senator from Tennessee was one of the century’s great legislators and led “the Republicans at a time when, for some members of his caucus, compromise was beginning to be a dirty word.”
The book , The Last Great Senate, is Ira Shapiro’s first-hand history of the Senate in the 1970’s before the pivotal election of 1980 – the election of Ronald Reagan and the defeat of many Senate liberals – ushered in a new era in American and senatorial politics. Shapiro, a staffer to several Senate Democrats in this period, nonetheless makes Baker one of the heroes of his book by recalling his essential role in the Watergate hearings, as well as Baker’s support for the Panama Canal treaties and his generous and non-partisan backing of Jimmy Carter during the Iran hostage crisis.
Shapiro makes a compelling case that the rapid increase in partisanship in the Senate after 1980 – the year Senate lions like Idaho’s Frank Church, Washington’s Warren Magnuson and South Dakota’s George McGovern lost – continues to this day.
There are many reasons why “the world’s greatest delibrative body” has become a place where compromise rarely exists and where partisan showmanship reigns nearly every day. Shapiro sums it up this way: “It is more difficult to be a senator today than it was in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The increasingly vitriolic political culture, fueled by a twenty-four-hour news cycle, the endless pressure to raise money, the proliferation of lobbyists and demanding organized interests are all well known, and they take a toll. But all those factors make it more essential that our country has a Senate of men and women who bring wisdom, judgment, experience, and independence to their work, along with an understanding that the Senate must be able to take collective action in the national interest.”
Pick out a roster of the Senate in the 1970’s and read the names – Republicans like Dole of Kansas, Hatfield of Oregon, Goldwater of Arizona and McClure of Idaho and Democrats like Jackson of Washington, Mansfield of Montana, Bayh of Indiana and Hart of Michigan – and recall that the United States Senate used to work.
As the Washington Post noted in its favorable review of Shapiro’s book, “Senators are politicians with the most monumental political ambitions, and they operate in a political environment that reflects how much the country has changed — in some ways, not for the better. The fault is not in the Senate but in the country itself.”
Indeed. James Madison’s view of the Senate as described in Federalist 62 would be a body defined by “senatorial trust” requiring a “great extent of information and stability of character.” I suspect most members of the Senate today chafe at the characterization that they live in a world of political dysfunction, but perhaps they do precisely because voters seem barely willing to tolerate the need for Senators, from both parties, to embrace “senatorial trust” and work together, really work together, to address, and occasionally solve, big national problems.