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05.05.12

Will Dick Lugar Be The RINO-Hunters’ Latest Trophy?

Both parties are purging their remaining moderates, and our government is worse off for it, writes John Avlon.

It's RINO hunting season, and Dick Lugar has a big target on his back.

The six-term Indiana senator was once Richard Nixon's favorite Republican Mayor—but Tricky Dick looks like a hippie compared to the Tea Party crowd, and Lugar has several sins alleged against him that could lead his party to purge him on Tuesday.

First, he's on speaking terms with some Democrats. Second, he once co-sponsored nuclear non-proliferation legislation with Barack Obama. Third, as the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he definitely knows who the president of Uz-becki-becki-stan is.
  

Which is why severe conservatives from Rick Santorum to Michele Bachmann to Grover Norquist are rallying around Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party favorite who diagnoses the problems in Washington this way: “The time for being collegial is past, it's time for confrontation."

Talk about a choice, not an echo. This acid approach might fail in a high turnout general election but in a low turnout May primary, activists can effectively hijack the process. Certainly the signs aren’t good – Lugar is down 10 points to Mourdock in the latest poll.

Video screenshot

Former Senator Bill Bradley talks about compromise in government.

But there is a belated wake-up among conservatives opposed to cannibalization. Peggy Noonan devoted her weekend Wall Street Journal column to a defense of Dick Lugar and a fellow famed Hoosier Republican emailed me to do the same. “One need not choose between being a good conservative Republican and a statesman who gets things done for the country by reaching across the aisle,” wrote former Indianapolis Mayor and Harvard Professor Steve Goldsmith. “Dick Lugar does both. A loss by him is a loss for both.”

Lugar would be just the latest of a series of skins claimed by the RINO hunters, most infamously Utah Senator Bob Bennett, who was done in during a convention vote, without the citizens of Utah being consulted. His longtime colleague Orin Hatch has at least a fighting chance in a primary. There will be other targets this election cycle as well, including centrist senate candidate Chris Shays in Connecticut and the eminently electable Heather Wilson in New Mexico’s senate primary.

The decisive factor in ousting both Democrats was the strength of the unions, who have been as empowered as corporations by Citizens United.

RINO hunting has long been a problem inside the Republican Party, through groups like the Club for Growth—which has dumped $1.4 million against Lugar. They target congressman and senators they label “Republicans in Name Only”and justification is always a defense of fiscal discipline. But peel back the bumper sticker and there is a social conservative litmus test at work as well. Good luck naming a libertarian pro-choicer who has been supported by these forces. Or finding the organized outrage direct at notorious pork barrelers like Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi. Their bottom line is party line.

What new is that DINO hunting is starting to catch on in Democratic circles. This particular purification purge is still emerging—Democrats are amateurs compared to Republicans when it comes to taking down their own, as evidenced by the asymmetric polarization afflicting the right side of Congress. But just last month, the DINO hunters claimed two kills, knocking off a pair centrist Democrats from the swing state of Pennsylvania, Reps. Jason Altmire and Tim Holden.

In the case of Altmire, a vote against health care reforms, which matching his constituent’s views, was nonetheless considered a hanging offense by his fellow party member. In the northeastern stretch of the state, the unions backed a trial lawyer with predictable sympathies, Matt Cartwright, over 20-year centrist incumbent Tim Holden. The decisive factor in ousting both Democrats was the financial and organizational strength of the unions, who have been as empowered as corporations by Citizens United—but with considerably less outrage on the left.

“You've got to wonder if the lefty purists who have been chortling over the primary defeats of moderate Democrats have any interest in winning elections and governing,” says Will Marshall of the Democratic centrist Progressive Policy Institute. “The Democratic coalition is evenly divided between moderates and liberals, with a healthy chunk of conservatives—17 percent —in the balance. So purging moderates is a sure-fire formula for political marginalization.”

If that’s the intention, it’s working. The ranks of Blue Dog Democrats have been shrinking steadily since they enabled Democrats to retake control of the House in 2006. One notable Senate-level example of came in 2010, when a union-backed primary challenge to Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln dragged her down enough that the Tea Party tide took her under in November.

This DINO hunting has been encouraged by progressive purists among the Netroots who tend to see politics from a national perspective—but conservatives who see Democrats in centrist swing districts as the most vulnerable have also encouraged it.

In this way the RINO hunters and the DINO hunters find themselves in a kind of soft collusion—they both want to see the parties ever more polarized. Their solution to DC’s dysfunction seems to be a cleansing landslide election where their vision is popularly accepted and the other team is effectively killed off. This fantasy is incompatible with the realities of governing in our democracy. But it is a tempting message as the two parties try to mobilize their bases while harnessing the historic levels of anger at Congress.

The result is that the next congress is likely to be even more polarized—and even less popular, if that’s possible—than the current one, no matter who is elected president.

I’d like to think that a re-elected President Obama would be seen as legitimate and treated with respect by conservative Republicans, but there’s not a lot of evidence to suggest that will happen.

Likewise, if Mitt Romney is elected he will find himself quickly contending with deep distrust by conservative Republicans while liberals take a page out of the Tea Party playbook and feel justified in treating him with intense uniform opposition from day one. After all, they’ll say, they did it to our guy, why shouldn’t we respond in kind? Subsequent Republican pleas for civility and national unity will lack credibility after the Obama years. And the war in Washington will go on.

For now the storm front hangs over Indiana, poised to wash away the career of a man of civility and substance. Dick Lugar’s fate this Tuesday will speak to the strength of these professional polarizers and the future of the U.S. Senate as a place where serious people are sent based on their ability to reason together.