Rolling Over

05.08.12

Michael Tomasky on Richard Lugar’s Cowardly Moderation

Washington’s arbiters of conventional wisdom love a bipartisan. Maybe that’s why they praise him to the skies, even though he’s done nothing to stand up to the extremists in his party.

So it looks as if Richard Lugar is going to lose Tuesday's GOP Senate primary in Indiana. Hoosier Republicans are likely to send forth into battle Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party favorite who believes the era of cooperation is over (uh, yeah, it has been; nice that he finally noticed). The natural impulse is to feel sorry for Lugar, but I won't be attending the pity party. Lugar and other Republican senators should have spoken out long ago about the extremism that has overtaken their party and the way it is asphyxiating a system of government that wasn't designed to withstand such assaults. History will record his cowardice for failing to do so—and will remember that he could have gone down fighting instead of whimpering.

Lugar is seeking his seventh term. This in and of itself ought to be a legitimate campaign issue, even though by Senate standards he's not really that old (he turned 80 last month). It might also be a campaign issue that he doesn't actually live in Indiana. These things apparently are mattering a lot back home. But inside the Beltway, the facts that he's been here forever and lives in McLean, Va., merely inure him to the arbiters of conventional wisdom. He is said to harken back to a better time, when senators put party aside yadda yadda. His departure will constitute one more nail in the coffin of civility. Mourdock's challenge to him, Cokie Roberts told NPR listeners Monday, will have "a chilling effect" on the whole body because "even if Lugar wins, he comes back a different senator from the bipartisan, reaching-across-the-aisle kind of senator he's been for decades."

It's certainly true that Lugar is no Jim DeMint, so if that's your standard, then yes, he's a sell-out. His conservative rating hovers in the mid-60s. He tends to vote for Barack Obama's nominees to various positions. He supported an allegedly controversial nominee to the federal bench in his home state—the kind of vote that stands out in today's poison swamp but for decades was utterly routine. For all this, one senses that his real crime is to have been Obama's friend when the latter was a senator. They traveled to Russia together and worked together on nuclear proliferation issues. Obama bragged about their relationship in The Audacity of Hope. Lugar probably could have done without that.

So it is the case: If Republicans were all exactly as conservative as Lugar, Washington would be a much saner place. At the same time, though, let's note that Lugar did not support a single really major Obama initiative. Not health care, not financial reform, not "don't ask, don't tell" repeal. Eight Republicans actually voted for that last one, but not Lugar. And not just final votes. He opposed most of these things several times, every step along the way. There's even a page on Lugar's campaign website called "The Obama Agenda," reminding visitors that the senator has opposed the president on health care, cap and trade, stimulus, Timothy Geithner, financial reform, the budget, and pro-union card-check legislation.

In a world in which bipartisanship is not defined by right-wing extremists, then, Lugar's record isn't impressively bipartisan at all. There was a time when a handful of senators crossed the aisle to support a new president's chief policy programs, mostly because it was smart politics for them but also out of deference to the new president's mandate or the fact that the president won their state. And no, I don't mean 1965 or 1977 or 1981. I mean 2001, when 25 percent of voting Senate Democrats (11 out of 44) backed Bush's tax cuts. Might Lugar have at least tried to work with the new president, who was both his friend and the first Democrat to win his state since 1964? Evidently not.

But what really gets me about Lugar and Olympia Snowe and the already retired George Voinovich is that they have all had opportunities to confront this extremism head-on, and they all ducked it. Snowe and Voinovich said a few things here and there, but most of their comments were after the fact and in the spirit of lamentation. And they cast votes here and there—Snowe on health care (only in committee, not on cloture or final passage), Voinovich on "don't ask, don't tell" (after he announced he was retiring). But no one has had the nerve—with the partial exception of Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, to say to the party, in real time, Look, people, for the sake of our party and our country, we can't go down this radical path.

In a world where bipartisanship isn’t defined by right-wing extremists, Lugar’s record isn’t impressively bipartisan at all.

What today's GOP needs is a Margaret Chase Smith moment. Smith, the moderate GOP senator who was the first of her party to denounce the demagoguery of Joe McCarthy. In fact, take few minutes right now if you can and read the "Declaration of Conscience" by Smith and six other Republican senators from June 1, 1950, and consider whether you can imagine any national Republican voicing such sentiments today, being so critical of her or his own party.

Dick Lugar is probably going to wake up Wednesday morning a loser, his staff making arrangements to collect and transfer his papers. If all these nice things that people like Cokie Roberts and Barack Obama say about him are to be believed, he'll probably also wake up at least a little ashamed, like Senator Bulworth at the beginning of the eponymous movie, sucking down a bourbon and crying while watching the tape of his new campaign commercial about workfare, wondering how it was that he came to espouse something so remote from his actual belief system. He should cry. He had, and lost, a chance to go down in dignity.

NOTE—TOMASKY BLOG LAUNCHED: Please visit my new blog for even more political wisdom from yours truly. Plus golf. And crosswords puzzles ...