Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), one of the last remaining statesmen in the U.S. Senate, is fighting for his political life.
For 35 years, Lugar has worked with presidents and lawmakers from both parties to solve difficult problems. In the realm of foreign policy, the two-time chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has achieved historic accomplishments in promoting arms control, containing nuclear proliferation, advancing international law, championing sound energy programs and confronting the global food crisis.
The Republican senator has been a revered political figure in Indiana for more than three decades; in his last election he ran unopposed for a sixth term and secured more than 85 percent of the vote. It was his fourth consecutive victory by a two-thirds majority.
Now Lugar is under attack from the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party and is scrambling frantically to survive a tough GOP Senate primary next spring.
Those in the Tea Party movement say Lugar, who by most measures has a very conservative voting record, is too moderate. To bolster their case, they cite his votes to confirm President Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees, approve a Wall Street rescue package, back an arms control treaty with Russia, support some gun restrictions and endorse the Dream Act which sets up a path to citizenship for the children of some illegal immigrants.
In announcing his decision to challenge Lugar in the GOP Senate primary, Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock blasted the senator for being too willing to work with Democrats.
“It’s bipartisanship that has brought us to the brink of bankruptcy,” Mourdock declared, saying accusatorially that Lugar “is known for his bipartisanship.”
In his attempt to win the GOP Senate primary, Lugar has emphasized his decades of loyalty to the Republican Party and its policy agenda. He has depicted himself as a partisan Republican who has been loyal to Ronald Reagan, George H.W Bush and George W. Bush. This is an understandable move to consolidate his support with the Republican base.
What is less clear is if the senator will also fully embrace his impressive history as a statesman who has been willing to work with leaders from both parties to advance the national interest.
Fierce Tea Party attacks and a poisonous political environment in which virtually all incumbents are viewed negatively by their constituents are not the best contexts to proclaim the importance of statesmanship and bipartisanship.
But in truth, our ugly political environment might be the most important time for leaders such as Richard Lugar to say, without apology, that working for the national interest is far more important than prolonging any individual political career or winning partisan advantage for either party.
As someone who has followed Lugar’s career carefully and has just written a book on the senator’s impressive achievements in the foreign policy realm, I think it would make for a compelling campaign if Lugar aggressively emphasized his history of statesmanship and bipartisanship. This is what Lugar will be remembered for decades from now and for which he deserves rich praise.
To be sure, highlighting this history entails political risks in a contentious Republican primary. But by doing so, Lugar would elevate American politics at a time when the nation badly needs a political lift. Running unapologetically as a statesman would be a risk for Lugar, but it would also be a strikingly bold act and the fitting capstone to a distinguished career.
Follow Steven Levingston on Twitter @SteveLevingston