With polls showing six-term incumbent Republican Senator Richard Lugar to be a heavy underdog in his Indiana primary race with insurgent State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, many in the media are weeping bitter tears about the end of an era in Washington. After six terms in which he has increasingly come to be seen as part of the Senate furniture, it is not surprising that a likely plurality of Indiana voters are ready to turn him out. But to listen to the anguished reaction from pundits who are sympathetic to Lugar, his opponent’s supporters are nothing less than right-wing Jacobins who are sacrificing a sage statesman on the altar of extremism. But as much as that fits the mainstream media’s story line about the evil influence of the Tea Party on American politics, the truth is not quite that dramatic.
Lugar is the ultimate establishmentarian and the voice of conventional wisdom about any conceivable topic–especially foreign policy. He is also well-liked for his reputation for bipartisan cooperation. Though we are told Washington will be the poorer if there are fewer or no Lugars at all, the taxpayers as well as those sick of his knee-jerk foreign policy “realism” must be forgiven if they point out there is a difference between being the ultimate D.C. insider and the sort of politics of integrity we are told he embodies. Far from this being a case where the Tea Partiers are rolling out the guillotine for a brave voice of principle, what is going on in Indiana is merely the inevitable fate of any politician who overstays his welcome while standing for little but the continuation of business as usual on Capitol Hill.
Lugar is portrayed by normally sensible writers such as Peggy Noonan as the voice of reason in a town gone mad with ideologues. But as even she understands, the frustration of the GOP grass roots with people who call themselves conservatives but spend more time making nice with liberals and enabling the growth of the federal leviathan is not just a matter of Tea Party intemperance. It might be unfair to label Lugar a RINO, but to dismiss the refusal of many Republicans to bow to Lugar’s inflated Washington reputation as foolish populism says more about Washington than it does Indiana Republicans.
In the last two years as we have once again experienced the frustrations that attend to a divided government, those members of Congress who are less interested in agreement for its own sake than they are in fidelity to the ideas that they ran on have been demonized as extremists. President Obama has sought to brand GOP members who wouldn’t bow to his demand for tax increases as having put party before country, a theme the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank also uses in his hit piece on Lugar’s opponents. But the notion that government should be left to the so-called “adults” — a term that Noonan also uses to describe Lugar– is wrong.
It is true Congress must ensure the government functions, but Lugar’s fans seem to be saying the business of Washington is too important to be left in the hands of the people, which is profoundly offensive. We have gridlock because we are currently stuck with a president who was elected in a liberal Democratic year with a House of Representatives that was swept in on a conservative Republican tide. That standoff should be resolved, one way or the other in November, as it should be, by the voters. But so long as people like Lugar, who, for all of their virtues, seem to be part of a permanent governing class, elections don’t count for much.
It is true that a Lugar defeat can be seen as part of a trend in which both parties have shed those members whose views deviate from those of their respective bases. That will lead, we are told, to politics where compromise is impossible. There is a cost to ideological politics, but there is also a price to be paid for Washington to be run by politicians whose primary loyalty is to the status quo rather than to the voters, and we have been paying for this for generations.
Compromise is a tactic, not a vision for governance. Moderation has its uses but when it becomes a faith in of itself, it has little to offer but the defense of existing institutional imperatives. The Senate will survive without its Dick Lugars. Other adults, including those who have not lost touch with the sentiments of their party’s grass roots, will replace them. The result will not be the collapse of our republic. In fact, it just might be the first step toward its salvation.