Dick Lugar’s manifesto: Sour grapes or speaking truth to power?

at 05:06 PM ET, 05/09/2012

In the wake of a crushing defeat at the hands of state Treasurer Richard Mourdock Tuesday night, Indiana Republican Sen. Dick Lugar congratulated his opponent and wished him well.


Sen. Richard Lugar meets with voters outside of a polling location Tuesday, May 8, 2012, in Greenwood, Ind. Lugar is being challenged by two-term state Treasurer Richard Mourdock. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Then he put out a 1,425-word statement that reads like a polemic against partisanship the likes of which is rarely seen in modern politics. (NBC’s “First Read” called the Lugar manifesto the incumbent’s Jerry Maguire moment — a particularly apt description.)

In it, Lugar bashed Mourdock for his “embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset” and said that unless the man who beat him “modifies his approach, he will achieve little as a legislator”. (Question for another post: Do people want their legislators to “achieve” things these days?)

Lugar also blasted the Republican party for encouraging a partisan mindset that makes it “as difficult as possible for a legislator of either party to hold independent views” and added: “I believe that if this attitude expands in the Republican party we will be relegated to minority status.”

The question: Is Lugar right or is this (another) case of a politician venting at the problems of an institution that he would (still) kill to be a part of?

The answer: It’s a little of both.

Lugar is right when he writes that there are “an increasing number of legislators in both parties who have adopted an unrelenting partisan viewpoint”.

In National Journal’s 2011 vote ratings, there was not a single Republican Senator who has a more liberal voting record than any Democratic Senator and not a single Democratic Senator who had a more conservative voting record than any Republican Senator. That’s only the third time that’s happened in three decades — and one of the other times was in 2010.

And Lugar is also right that in the last Republican presidential primaries the candidate have “competed with one another to express the most strident anti-immigration view, even at the risk of alienating a huge voting bloc.” (The likes of former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have expressed concerns about the GOP’s positioning on immigration vis a vis the Hispanic community.)

Where Lugar gets into shakier ground is when he tries to analyze his own campaign.

Talk to anyone not on the Lugar payroll and they will tell you that Lugar ignored good advice on how to deal with his weaknesses in a potential primary fight — believing, wrongly, that people in Indiana would never vote him out.

Given that, statements like “there was never a moment when my campaign took anything for granted” and “I knew that I would face an extremely strong anti-incumbent mood following a recession” ring somewhat false.

Remember that Lugar had $4 million in the bank at the end of 2011 while Mourdock had $362,000. If Lugar had truly been aware of the political peril that faced him, he would have been spending heavily earlier this year to define the underfinanced Mourdock.

That part of the Lugar manifesto reads then like a bit of revisionist history. Much of the rest of it, however, is consistent with similar sentiments expressed by other Senators once their careers have ended — either by choice or by the voters.

In the wake of her retirement announcement earlier this year Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe (R) penned an op-ed in the Washington Post in which she declared that “the greatest deliberative body in human history is not living up to its billing”.

And, back in 2010, retiring Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh (D) wrote in the New York Times that “action on the deficit, economy, energy, health care and much more is imperative, yet our legislative institutions fail to act.”

While the trend of refereeing from the sidelines is something short of noble leadership, it’s clear that the rise of partisanship is driving some of the more notable moderates out of the Senate. (In addition to Snowe, Democratic moderates Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Ben Nelson of Nebraska are retiring this cycle.)

The question is what anyone will do about it? Lugar has been pushed into forced retirement. Snowe, Bayh, Conrad and Nelson chose to step aside. Their departures make the Senate more partisan and, seemingly, less likely to act to lessen partisanship.

 
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