Sen. Richard Lugar did not merely lose his primary contest last night. He got thumped. Richard Mourdock took 60.6% of the vote in the Hoosier state to Lugar’s 39.4%. In all of his previous contests, Lugar has taken more than two-thirds of the vote. Six years ago, the Democrats did not even field a candidate against him. This is not your grandfather’s Republican Party.
Lugar joins former Senator Robert Bennett from Utah and former Congressman (and odds-on favorite to become a Senator) Mike Castle of Delaware in the list of those mainstream Republican candidates who were retired by their own party which has swung hard to the right. Some have given up trying, like Maine’s Senator Olympia Snowe, recognizing that even if you manage to win, your Republican caucus in the Senate is going to be sufficiently filled with fire-breathers, enabled by those whose Machiavellian instinct to worry most about obstructing one’s political opponents no matter what the cost, that what was once a rewarding job, reaching consensus in ways that benefit the nation, is no longer worth the effort.
Ronald Reagan used to tell the joke that in his administration, sometimes the signals got crossed because “the right hand doesn’t know what the far-right hand is doing.” Unfortunately, what was once a joke is now a reality and the far-right hand is not shy about letting the whole world know what it is doing. It is enforcing a narrow orthodoxy from within, castigating and casting out those who are deemed “RINO’s” – Republicans In Name Only. Mind you, by most standards, Dick Lugar was no moderate. His voting record was quite consistently conservative. But, his fault – his most grievous fault – was to believe that, say, the Senate should not obstruct a president’s nominees to the Supreme Court or the Cabinet unless, in its exercise of its constitutional authority to confirm nominees, the Senate uncovers something professionally disqualifying in a nominee. Lugar had voted to confirm both Sonya Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, neither of whom strike most court observers as extreme or unfit, even if you may disagree with their views. These votes were held against Lugar. And, Lugar also was one of the Senate’s strongest advocates for a bipartisan foreign policy, consistently working across the aisle to make sure that U.S. political divisions ended at the water’s edge. It goes without saying that this inclination to craft a bipartisan foreign policy has served the nation very well for very many years.
Republicans on the airwaves last night were saying that the Indiana results do not show a party running off the rails, that Lugar had grown out of touch with his constituents, that the result had more to do with local political considerations than any national trend lines within the contemporary GOP. Lugar was old, after all, although that is an odd charge to lay against someone who is seated in a body called “the Senate.” But, a twenty point margin within one’s own party is a stunning fact, one not easily explained by such parochial concerns, concerns which have never harmed Lugar in the past. If his case was a one-off, if it had not been preceded by Christine O’Donnell’s victory over Castle and Mike Lee and Tim Bridgewater’s besting of Bennett at the Utah Republican Convention. (Lee went on to win the primary and the general election and is now Utah’s junior senator. O’Donnell, mercifully, has faded into political oblivion.)
It is strange to reflect that the founding fathers did not foresee the role that political parties would play in our nation’s political life. Indeed, they were very anxious to avoid such an outcome. Yet, from the very start, parties emerged, first within the Cabinet of our first president and subsequently at the polls. For most of the intervening years, the competition between the parties has served as a check on the power of any one part of the government to exercise too much power over the whole of government, and, consequently, to keep the governed safe from their own governors. There have been times when the parties were sharply divided over ideology, indeed, the Republican Party was founded on very ideological, and very correct, grounds regarding the extension of slavery. We forget how fierce the ideological arguments of the 1930s were, but they were fierce and the issues then engaged continue to mark our political divides. There is always in politics, and in other spheres of life, a pendulum effect, and we can only hope that today’s GOP is reaching the end of its swing to the right and will soon start to swing back to the center. But, is that hope sustainable? 13 Republican senators are up for re-election in 2014. You can easily conclude how last night’s results will affect their votes in the future. If they must spend the next two years looking over the right shoulder, they will not be able to look ahead. Certainly, people like Sen. Lindsay Graham took note of last night’s results.
America needs our political parties to be robust, intellectually serious, balancing their commitment to their worldview with the pragmatism our system of divided powers requires. We do not have the kind of parliamentary system that could adjust itself to changing tides and, in the face of urgent national tasks, form a government in the center, as Israel’s parliament just did, isolating the extreme parties from the actual decision-making. Instead, the extremes of both parties can hold the whole of their party hostage. Among the Democrats, it is the libertarian lifestylists – NARAL, NOW, the Human Rights Campaign Fund – all of which have deep pockets, that can hold the Democrats hostage. Among the Republicans, it is the libertarian economic folks, with their hatred of government, that can run their party of the rails. In both instances, it is the libertarian sensibility that is at fault and, frankly, I am not sure how to confront it.
But, I am sure, that the third person most affected by last night’s results in Indiana is the kind of person who can confront it. Congressman Joe Donnelly, who was not opposed in the Democratic Senate primary and will face Mourdock in November, is a pro-life Democrat. He has already stared down the libertarians of the left. He was one of the few conservative Democrats who voted for the Affordable Care Act and yet was able to hold on to his seat during the 2010 GOP tsunami. (This contrasts with Mourdock who has run for Congress three times and lost every time.) Indiana will not be an easy win for a Democrat in 2012. No one expects President Obama to repeat his 2008 win in the state. But, there is a chance and, in the event, those 39.4% of the GOP electorate who voted for Lugar, to the extent that they warmed to Lugar’s repeated emphasis on the need for senators willingly to work across the aisle, might be people more inclined to tilt towards Donnelly than Mourdock come November. Certainly, had Lugar won, Democrats would have heavily discounted their chances for a pick-up in the Hoosier state. Now, they see the possibility of a win.
In the 1980s, it was the Democrats who were careening out of control. Now, it is the Republicans. The careening, then and now, was never complete. After all, Mike Dukakis was hardly a liberal firebrand and Mitt Romney did win the GOP presidential nomination, not Rick Santorum. The danger is that in smaller, low turnout races, a determined corps of ideologues, backed with the now untraceable monies of the SuperPACs, can tilt the playing field their way and snatch a victory even though the majority of voters do not favor extremism. Whoever wins the presidency in November is going to face a Congress filled with men and women too worried about their base to move to the center. A national calamity, God forbid, could reshuffle the political dynamics, or some unforeseen new idea could alter the political landscape in ways that permit compromise, the way that rising productivity and new business opportunities spawned in the 1990s allowed Democrats and Republicans to work together distributing the new cash to programs the Democrats cherished while paying down the federal debt as Republicans desired. But, until both parties are willing to confront the cancer of libertarianism that afflicts them, it is not easy to muster hope for the future.