Wednesday, May 9, 2012

An un-angry man:
Dick Lugar bows out

THE CONCEPT of centrist philosophy in American politics took another hit yesterday, courtesy of the results of the Indiana Senate primary. With the outcome, chronicling a death long foretold, longtime Republican Sen. Richard Lugar, one of a relative handful of Republican centrists in the Senate, was defeated in his bid for re-election by Indiana state treasurer Richard Mourdock. He goes up against Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in the general election in November.

Lugar went down by about 22 percentage points, 61 percent to 39 percent, in a race that many said was a forgone conclusion given his political temperament and the relentless rise of restive younger conservatives eager to flex a more muscular, less tolerant style of leadership in the Senate. You know: What used to be called Tea Party Republicans.

Lugar, the senior-most Republican senator, was loyal to the end. "My public service is not concluded," Lugar told his supporters in Indianapolis. "I look forward to what can be achieved in the Senate in the next eight months despite a very difficult national election atmosphere."

“My health is excellent, I believe that I have been a very effective senator for Hoosiers and for the country, and I know that the next six years would have been a time of great achievement,” Lugar said.

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The race may have been about a few different things. Lugar has long been under fire for not actually maintaining a home in his home state, something he apparently hasn't done for decades. Mourdock exploited that Lugar vulnerability to great advantage.

In a race like this, you could also, with some legitimacy, make the case that the change in Indiana was a purely generational event. Lugar just turned 80 last month, and he’s been in Congress since 1977. Mourdock is 20 years his junior. If they haven’t already, the Mourdock team will make the point of framing the race to come just this way, reinforcing the meme of Indianans calling for a New Generation of Leadership in the Senate. Chronologically speaking, there’s no way to argue with that.

But lift up that rock and take a look at what else is underneath. Lugar’s real liability was a relative political pragmatism. An expert on arms control policy and a senator with a healthy autonomous streak, Lugar opposed the Bush Iraq war strategy as far back as 2007. He supported President Obama’s nominations of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. He backed Obama’s bid to raise the debt ceiling. He praised the president’s foreign policy strategy. He was even named an honorary co-chair of the Obama inauguration.

On Tuesday, Dick Lugar paid the price for being politically reasonable, rational, accessible. He paid the price for being a practical politician and legislator in the mold of Jacob Javits, for a style of discourse and a willingness to trade partisanship for outreach that certainly inspired Lincoln Chafee and Olympia Snowe.

Not that he didn’t have his bedrock Republican principles. He  voted against the Violence Against Women Act. He opposed Obama on the health-care law. He supported the Federal Marriage Amendment cementing marriage’s definition as a heterosexual experience. He opposed repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. And on Tuesday night, amid his own defeat, he offered full-throated support for Republican victory in November.

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BUT FOR the Republicans fighting to achieve ascendancy right now, it’s precisely this proven unpredictability that made him dangerous. Dick Lugar was a reasonable man caught up in the undertow of wildly unreasonable times.

Joe Donnelly understands that. The Democrat from the Indiana 2nd who’ll challenge Mourdock for Lugar’s seat in the fall gets the fact that something’s been lost with Lugar's defeat. “For moderate Republicans and independents, and what I call people with Hoosier common sense, Senator Lugar has been someone who’s worked cross the aisle, who’s tried to do what’s right for the country,” he said Tuesday night on MSNBC.

“Richard Mourdock has said — it’s amazing to hear — he said he supports more confrontation. Only in Washington and in Richard Mourdock’s world is more partisanship and division a good thing. Richard Lugar tried to work together, and because of that, in large measure, he lost the primary.”

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Lugar’s own countenance tells another part of the story. On Tuesday night, speaking to his supporters, Dick Lugar managed to wear the smile that’s long been a part of his political aspect. It’s been as much a part of the senator as any legislation he’s championed, a bright, hopeful mien that reflects the attitude of a man who got through 34 years in the Senate without surrendering to the anger that now infects many in that deliberative body.

He hasn’t even left the Senate yet and won’t for another eight months, but the punditburo is already trial-testing recalibrated perceptions of the man from Indiana. Their basic point is about the same: What people are saying is wrong. Lugar wasn’t really a moderate. He’s only a moderate Republican compared to the Republicans that inhabit the Senate, and the Congress, today.

The imbalance in that comparison is exactly the problem.

Image credits: Lugar: Public domain. Mourdock: MSNBC. Donnelly: Public domain.

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