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Mark Shields: Late Howard Baker a Little Giant, But Too Bipartisan for GOP

By Mark Shields |

Back in the dark days — before the invention of cable news, texting and Twitter — there were a couple-dozen, mostly newspaper, almost all male reporters who covered U.S. politics nearly full time. They could be found in the last weeks before the Iowa presidential caucuses, up until “last call” at the bar of the Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel. Later the political media moved to New Hampshire and after-hours refreshments at Manchester’s Sheraton Wayfarer. During those late-night sessions, when reporters’ private opinions that never made it into print were voiced, I remember the personal presidential preference of the allegedly liberal political media, more often than not, being a short, southern Republican — Sen. Howard Baker of Tennessee.

Baker did have an abundance of the qualities we have come to prize in a successful presidential leader. He was intellectually honest, personally appealing, as articulate as he was analytical. Unlike too many score-settling pols, he never had an “enemies list.” He liked politics, and he was very good at his chosen profession. Nonconfrontational and nonbombastic, Baker was completely comfortable being Baker.

Those strengths of mind and character, which would have served Baker and his nation well if he had become president, turned out to be liabilities for him as a presidential candidate. Persuasive but soft-spoken, Baker refused to pose as some counterfeit, angry man just to woo primary voters in his increasingly anti-Washington party. In 1980, he was the Republican leader of the Senate, a full-time job, and ran behind two full-time candidates, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, neither of whom had a day job to distract him.

Two weeks before that year’s Detroit convention, Baker called Reagan and took himself out of logical consideration for the vice-presidential nomination — which might have provided him, as it did Bush, with a route to the Oval Office — because of compelling “family reasons.”

In fact, Baker repeatedly took himself out of consideration for the Republican national ticket by being insufficiently partisan. The first Republican ever elected to the Senate from Tennessee and named GOP Senate leader, Baker alienated, permanently it turned out, his party’s conservative base by supporting the Panama Canal Treaty, which had been negotiated by President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat. He also, unlike most of his Republican colleagues, supported the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with the Soviets to reduce the threat of nuclear war.

After Reagan's election and, with Baker’s skilled legislative leadership, the enactment of his tax cuts, mushrooming budget deficits followed. In 1982, then-Senate Majority Leader Baker walked across the Capitol to the office of House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill, D-Mass. The two men, both professionals and grown-ups, in short order agreed on a bipartisan agreement to raise the gasoline tax in order to complete and repair the nation’s highways and bridges, what had been since the shock of the OPEC price hike of oil unimaginable. What that led to, of course, was the major tax-increase bill that Reagan — who had pledged never to raise taxes — unenthusiastically signed into law.

It may have been the kiss of death that Baker was the preferred favorite of so many political reporters who covered him. Baker may have been only 5 feet 7 inches, but he was truly the Little Giant. And yes, he would have been one helluva president.

Baker died June 26, 2014, of complications from a recent stroke. He was 88.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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