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Country before party; Sen. Alexander takes a principled stand to emphasize the need for compromise

At last, a breath of fresh air from the Republicans. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., announced that he will step down from his leadership post so that he can pursue a bipartisan approach to governing. That's the system of governing the Senate once had but which, in the sway of tea party Republicans, is now sorely lacking.

Alexander, 71, is old enough to remember better days that weren't so long ago. He cited the examples of the late Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Trent Lott, R-Miss., who retired. Those senators and others were capable of working with colleagues of the other party and forging bipartisan agreements. Alexander wants to do his part to bring back that spirit, recognizing that it is unlikely to happen if left to the current leadership teams of each party.

This does not appear to have been an easy decision for Alexander, who spent the past nine years of his Senate career working his way up in the chamber's Republican leadership to chairman of the Republican Conference. Indeed, after reflecting on his choices, he wrote a speech about his decision last month and then set it aside to "let it cool." Last week, he let it fly.

It was a courageous step, and one that, in one way or another, both parties should emulate -- not necessarily in resigning from leadership positions, but in recognizing that the great issues before the nation cannot be solved by either of the two political parties alone. It's a model that is not unknown in Tennessee, home of former Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, known in Washington as a "great conciliator."

Republicans are expressing support for Alexander's decision, and maybe there is some happiness in it, given the sad state of the GOP. Alexander is likely to be succeeded by a younger, more aggressive partisan who won't much care for the concept that lies at the heart of this democracy: compromise.

Still, there must be some fear among the party's more senior members that they are whistling past the graveyard. What are voters to think when even a dyed-in-the-wool conservative such as Alexander concludes that truly serving the nation requires him to drop out of his own party's leadership?

Tea partyers' opinions notwithstanding, the country did pretty well for itself with a Congress that was willing and able to compromise. It hasn't been perfect, but what is? Certainly not the tea party.

No one need have any illusions that Alexander's resignation from his leadership post, on its own, will restore a sense of shared mission to the Senate. But it's a signal to those who are paying attention that the system isn't working for the benefit of the country. It would help if a few more senators would follow Alexander's principled lead.

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