Farewell Dick Lugar: A Gentleman Departs

May 14, 2012

It is official. The inmates are now squarely in charge of the asylum. Or they will be in November when the Senate will surely lurch ever further rightward. With Democrats contesting 23 seats to Republicans' 10, the numbers outcome itself seems inevitable. What exacerbates the erosion of bipartisanship, however, is the fact that individuals such as Dick Lugar, senator of Indiana since 1976, will not be part of a Republican majority, having lost his bid for a seventh term to State Treasurer Richard Mourdock.

In the interest of full disclosure: the writer has some acquaintance with Dick Lugar, having worked as a staffer on a series of meetings under the Aspen Institute Congressional Program on Russia, at which Lugar was a regular, and penetratingly insightful, participant. From this experience, one may state the obvious: Dick Lugar was a genuine, card-carrying conservative, albeit a responsible one who saw the advantage of engaging—not capitulating to, but engaging—the other side, whether that be Democrats in Congress or Russians on arms control (of which more later). On a personal note, I would add that, while considerably younger than the senator, I struggled to keep pace on some early morning runs during the Aspen conferences—the man's energy is not in question!

Lugar's defeat on May 8 is of course part of the rightward march of the Senate, one that must alarm Republicans who are not Tea Party-infected. It was preceded two years ago by the "death by deselection" of another bona fide conservative, Senator Bob Bennett of Utah.

Now, with a similar contest looming in that state, if one clicks on the Dick Lugar site on the internet, the first link one encounters is not to Lugar himself, but to "Lugar First Now Hatch!" "Dan for Utah!" it blares, "Elect a True Conservative for Utah!'

The Dan referred to is one Dan Liljenquist, who is challenging the veteran GOP Senator Orrin Hatch in the June primary. The message here, of course, is that the "conservatives" in the Senate (and the House of Representatives) are under attack from a radical fringe of their own party. Consider Lugar's impeccable conservative credentials:

  • Dating back to his first elective office, as mayor of Indianapolis, he became known as "Richard Nixon's favorite mayor" for his support for devolving federal powers to local community level
  • On abortion, his 2007-8 rating from the National Right to Life Committee was 85 percent
  • On the economy, he voted against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009
  • On health care, he voted against the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010, and has consistently opposed President Obama's health care reforms
  • On gay rights, while voting in favor of legislation to extend hate crime statutes to include sexual orientation, he also voted for the Federal marriage Amendment, limiting the definition of marriage to that of one woman to one man

Lugar's true power alley is, of course, foreign and security policy. He is the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and was its chairman from 1985-87 and from 2003-2007. The capstone of his leadership in the Senate has been tireless efforts toward reducing the threat from nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, first working with Democrat Senator Sam Nunn to create the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act of 1992, under which nuclear, chemical and biological stockpiles from the Soviet Union were greatly reduced, under the scrutiny of U.S. specialists.

To date, more than 7,500 nuclear warheads, along with hundreds of missiles, launchers and submarines have been decommissioned. This was followed in 2007 with the Lugar-Obama Proliferation and Threat Reduction Initiative, which focuses on the weapons of mass destruction threat from terrorists.

It goes without saying that the prospects for such safer-world, landmark bipartisan-inspired legislation seem forlorn in a Senate Chamber without a Dick Lugar. He was characteristically gracious in his concession speech to Mr. Mourdock; while noting with regret "deep divisions in our society right now," he went on to say "But these divisions are not insurmountable and I believe that people of good will, regardless of party, can work together for the benefit of our country."

Today, these words read like an elegy rather than a prophecy of hope, especially when juxtaposed with Mr. Mourdock's own victory statement: "Indianans want to see the Republicans in the United States Senate taking a more conservative track, and that conservatives around the United States could achieve the "impossible." One might reflect that, in trashing Dick Lugar's credentials and track record, they already have.

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