Richard Lugar, the Tea Party's Sacrificial Lamb

When he was the young mayor of Indianapolis in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Richard Lugar was acclaimed by Richard Nixon as his favorite mayor. An orthodox Main Street Republican, stiff despite his years, Lugar was competent, conventional and Nixonian in a good way (studious, intellectually ambitious) without any of Big Dick’s phobias. He brought those attributes to the Senate, where in recent decades he took on the challenge of ridding the world of loose nukes. It was a task that required him to work alongside his Democratic colleagues, which was never a problem for Lugar in any case. 

Yesterday, the Republican Jacobins dispatched Dick Lugar to history’s dustbin. He was a creature of the Republican past—a contemporary of Bob Dole and Howard Baker and a generation of not-excessively partisan and certainly not all that ideological Republicans who used to dominate their party. Indiana Republicans, who’d sent him to the Senate for six successive terms, now found him wanting: He lacked the hysterical insecurity that powers the Tea Party and its candidates. Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who defeated Lugar by a 60-percent-to-40-percent margin, attacked Lugar for trading with the enemy—that is, for working with Barack Obama, when he was in the Senate, on a bill to reduce the post-Soviet nuclear stockpile. Mourdock vowed to end Lugar’s practice of working across the aisle. 

Lugar could have gone on TV early to demolish Mourdock, but his advisers, expecting yet another Lugar coronation, were confident that no such desperate expedients were necessary. Even when it was clear that Lugar was in for the fight of his life, he didn’t repudiate his past and move further right, which is what his veteran colleague Orrin Hatch is currently doing to save his seat in Utah. Having spent decades opposing Soviet Communism, Lugar couldn’t bring himself to say that Obama posed an equivalent existential threat to the American way of life. He refused to reinvent himself—a decision both admirable and suicidal. Rightwing organizations—including the NRA, which objected to Lugar’s votes for Obama’s Supreme Court nominees—poured in money to independent expenditure campaigns on Mourdock’s behalf. 

That wasn’t the only reason Lugar lost, of course. He was a Washington lifer whose concerns reached beyond Muncie to the wider world. He was out of touch with the new-model Republican base. He was, for better and worse, senatorial. In the logic of the current Republican Party, those were sins enough.

Lugar was never purely a party man. In October of 2008, I ran into him at a Panera just outside Columbus Ohio—the key swing city in the key swing state just two weeks before the Obama-McCain election. Lugar was unaccompanied by aides, much less an entourage. His sole companion was the director of the Lugar Center at Denison College, Lugar’s alma mater; they were discussing upcoming programs at the center. He plainly had no intention of campaigning for John McCain that day. It was widely known he held McCain in low esteem. Foreign policy was not to be trusted to impulsive interventionists like McCain, but rather—ideally—to Nixonian realists. Lugar appeared quite content to sidestep the contortions attendant to campaigning that day. Nor was he willing to contort himself on his own behalf during the past two months in Indiana. 

Will he now contort himself to help Mourdock hold his seat for the Republicans? After the votes were counted last night, he told supporters that he hoped his “opponent prevails in November.” But being a good senator, Lugar continued, “will require him to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington. He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party.”

That’s some endorsement, no? Democratic congressman Joe Donnelly, who won the Democratic senate nomination last night (he was unopposed), may well have been the night’s big winner. Against Dick Lugar, Donnelly would have been universally written off. But if Lugar’s supporters feel about Mourdock as Lugar himself plainly does, Donnelly may have a fighting chance to pick up the seat—a victory Democrats had not counted upon until the Tea Party anointed one if its own last night. 

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