Republican Richard Lugar came to Washington known as “Richard Nixon’s favorite mayor,” voted for President Ronald Reagan’s agenda more than any other senator, and is preparing to exit Congress a casualty of the anti-tax Tea Party.
While the political ground shifted in his 36 years in the U.S. Senate, Lugar became a foreign policy leader whose efforts to stem weapons of mass destruction earned him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination. Though he leaves office in three months, Lugar, 80, said he won’t set aside the work that established his reputation. He wants to continue his career in a less public role advocating for nuclear non-proliferation and energy security.
“I’m not interested really in holding office anymore,” Lugar, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its former chairman, said in an interview with Bloomberg News. “I’m not going to deny any interest ever in anything, but I really want to be sort of an independent advocate.”
A former Indianapolis mayor who first won his Senate seat in 1976, Lugar and Orrin Hatch of Utah are the Senate’s longest- serving Republicans. Hatch is favored to win re-election in November. Lugar was defeated in Indiana’s May primary by a fellow Republican who attacked him for not actively backing the Tea Party’s push to limit government and for being too willing to compromise with President Barack Obama.
Veterans of Washington say Lugar’s Senate departure will produce a void in the chamber, leaving his party without its elder statesman on international affairs. They say it will further thin the ranks of lawmakers who seek bipartisan deals.
“He’s brought to the Senate an internationalist, constructive view,” said former U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton of Indiana, a Democrat who once was chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “He tries to solve problems not in an ideological way but in a pragmatic way.”
Lugar, too, has questioned the leadership that the Republican nominee in Indiana, state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, would bring to the Senate. Lugar issued a blistering statement the night of his May 8 primary loss, saying Mourdock’s “embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance.”
Mourdock, backed by the Tea Party, beat Lugar 61 percent to 39 percent.
Indiana political analyst Ed Feigenbaum said until the primary Lugar had a reputation that was “the Hoosier gold standard,” and that he would have been favored in the Nov. 6 general election against the Democratic Senate nominee, Representative Joe Donnelly.
Instead, a poll conducted Sept. 19-23 of 800 likely voters by Howey Politics Indiana and DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, shows a close race, with 40 percent backing Donnelly and 38 percent favoring Mourdock. The survey’s margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
“This race would not be competitive if Lugar were still in there and had not been seriously challenged in the primary,” Feigenbaum said.
Lugar’s focus on nuclear non-proliferation included his work with then-Senator Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, to set up a program to help countries of the former Soviet Union dispose of weapons of mass destruction. Legislation cleared Congress two weeks before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. It has led to deactivation of 7,659 warheads and destruction of about 900 intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to Lugar’s office’s website.
Nunn in an Aug. 29 speech said the legislation was initially dismissed as “wacky” by critics who questioned spending U.S. funds to help destroy weapons in the former Soviet Union, and that Lugar was vital to its passage.
“The Nunn-Lugar legislation never would have passed without Dick Lugar,” Nunn said in a speech at The Hague in the Netherlands before the Carnegie Corp. and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Lugar cited the measure as his top accomplishment.
“Our country was facing annihilation,” he said in the Bloomberg interview. “So was Russia, for that matter. If mistakes had been made, some miscue of that sort, whatever our foreign policy problems, now they are relatively minor in comparison to the fact that we had an existential moment, whether we knew it or not,” as the Soviet Union was coming apart.
Lugar’s rise in politics came after a childhood marked by some adversity. He suffered from ear infections and allergies as a child, and turned to quiet pursuits such as reading and music lessons. His studies served him well as he graduated at the top of his high school class and from Denison University in Granville, Ohio. There, he was student body co-president with Charlene Smeltzer, who became his wife.
Lugar was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University and then went into politics in Indiana, winning a school board seat before his election as mayor of Indianapolis in 1968. In that post, he attracted notice for combining Indianapolis and surrounding Marion County into a single government.
He sought the Republican nomination for president in 1996 and presciently warned of the perils of terrorism. He was often on the short list of potential Republican vice presidential candidates.
In his personal life, Lugar was a serious runner, well into his 70s. For decades, he has operated a 600-acre corn, soybean and walnut farm that his father once owned in Marion County, experience he used in the Senate as chairman of the Agriculture Committee from 1995 to 2002. Lugar’s passion for farming was evident Sept. 28 when, during a visit to Bloomberg’s Washington bureau, he paused in conversation to survey agriculture commodity prices that scrolled by on a screen.
Even with the backing Lugar provided most Reagan-sponsored measures, he has been willing to buck presidents of his own party on international affairs.
In 1986, he helped override Reagan’s veto of legislation imposing economic sanctions on South Africa over its policies of racial separation. In 2007, in a Senate floor speech, he offered a critical assessment of the war in Iraq under President George W. Bush, saying the administration’s strategy wasn’t working and that the U.S. should curtail its military role in that country.
On domestic issues, he reached across the political aisle to work with Democrats on revisions to immigration law and confirmation of court appointees. The longest-serving member of Congress in Indiana’s history, in 2006 Lugar had no primary challenger or Democratic opponent as he won a sixth term in the Senate.
This year, though, he faced a changed political environment. Groups targeting him for defeat included the Washington-based Club for Growth and FreedomWorks, both of which push for limited government and low taxes and spent a combined $2.4 million in Indiana’s primary campaign through their super- PACS. Those seeking Lugar’s defeat emphasized his support for the $700 billion financial bailout passed in 2008, his ability to shepherd nuclear arms treaties through the Senate, and his votes in favor of Obama’s two Supreme Court nominees.
Feigenbaum said the senator also was hurt by the lack of time he had spent in his home state connecting with voters and local Republican officials, generating an out-of-touch image.
Blow to Republicans
A loss of Lugar’s seat would be a blow to Republican efforts to win a majority in the Senate, which Democrats now control, 53-47. Some Indiana Republicans, including a former chairman of the state party, are urging Lugar to campaign for Mourdock.
He has no plans to do that, he said in his Bloomberg interview. “I’m not a factor” in that race, Lugar said.
He plans to weigh in during Congress’ lame-duck session after the election when lawmakers will debate the $607 billion in automatic tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect in January. Lugar said he has little confidence in a bipartisan resolution on fiscal issues beyond a short-term delay.
Lugar predicts that public dissatisfaction over continued gridlock in Washington will stoke a 2014 voter backlash against “extreme” elements in both parties that are now forcing out those like him who are willing to seek compromise.
“The public may tolerate these extreme situations, but only for a little while,” Lugar said. “As a rule, there’s a snap-back in the next election. I don’t think we’re going to remain in gridlock for long, and there will be leaders who will come along and lead the argument that it’s time for change, and very big change.”
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