Richard Lugar Was Too Polite for Today’s Republicans

May 9 (Bloomberg) -- Republican moderates are no longer a dying breed. With Tuesday’s defeat of Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, they are dead.

Known as Richard Nixon’s favorite mayor when he ran Indianapolis back in the 1970s, this rock-solid Republican is no longer Republican enough. As defined by the Tea Party, Lugar was “Obama’s favorite senator,” a reference to Lugar’s welcome to the newbie from Illinois in 2005. Of course, Lugar voted against most of his “friend’s” agenda, including against President Barack Obama’s health-care law, but never mind.

In the Tea Party’s Republican Party, it is no longer enough to vote conservatively. You must have the demeanor of a zealot.

The man who defeated Lugar, Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, is purity itself. Not for him to dignify a Democrat by talking to him. He loves the “broken” version of Congress: ideologically extreme, scornful of compromise, unmoved by facts or evidence, dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. Mourdock is not one to let cooperation darken his door. “I feel more frustrated with Republicans than Democrats,” he says. “It is not bipartisanship we need. It is principle.”

The Lugar-Mourdock race was the Tea Party’s marquee contest this cycle, the one that promised annihilation of an infidel. The Tea Party hoped to mount a challenge to Utah Senator Orrin Hatch’s re-election bid, but its favored candidate chose not to run and Hatch moved sharply right. Going after Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine would have been satisfying, but she decided to retire.

A Heartland Icon

That left only a Republican icon from the heartland. Many of Lugar’s accomplishments required some element of that hated principle, bipartisanship. The Tea Party worked to make everything good he did look bad.

Take his signature accomplishment as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: He conceived, fought for and got passed a law to control nuclear weapons, an effort more important every day as terrorists chase loose nukes. But passing landmark legislation gets you nothing but suspicion if it was done in collaboration with a Democrat, Senator Sam Nunn. Therefore 1991’s Nunn-Lugar Act (note the placement of Lugar’s name) is diminished by its provenance.

As his party moved right, Lugar’s American Conservative Union rating slumped from the 90s to the 70s over the past few years. Lugar had a raft of conservative votes -- including against the despised health-care law -- but they were lost in his votes in favor of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the stimulus, Obama’s Supreme Court nominees (even though he shepherded Bush’s nominees through the Senate), the Dream Act (which Hatch sponsored back in the day) and the debt-ceiling increase. Heresies, all.

More than Lugar’s votes, there is his mild manner. Even when behaving as the Tea Party requires, Lugar did it without the requisite bombast and disdain for the other side.

Throughout his career, the safest place in the Capitol has been between Lugar and a camera. For a reporter with a notebook, however, he is a godsend, unfailingly polite and patient. If you don’t understand how weapons of mass destruction are making their way from Kazakhstan to al-Qaeda, it’s not because he didn’t explain it thoroughly. Eating his daily lunch of yogurt and an apple at his desk, never swanning around at night, Lugar has the sober demeanor of a priest or insurance adjustor.

But Lugar made a few mistakes that Mourdock capitalized on. Famously frugal, Lugar stopped keeping a residence in his home state, sleeping at a hotel on trips home. He counted the family farm as his residence and didn’t bill the government for trips there.

A Quiet Farmer

A farmer by nature who speaks quietly and in full sentences, Lugar is as plain as the Amish who dot his state. He was so popular for so long in Indiana that he forgot how to campaign. He didn’t face a primary challenge after his first election to the Senate in 1976; in 2006, he had no Democratic opponent.

In Mourdock, however, he had a formidable challenger. For the Tea Party, Mourdock may be the perfect candidate -- with the single imperfection that he actually holds office, thereby disqualifying himself as a pure political outsider. (At least Mourdock has never worked in the devil’s playground of Washington.)

Although Mourdock never misses a chance to eat rubber chicken, Lugar was scarce at party events until he found himself with a real race on his hands. Mourdock is backed by Sarah Palin and Grover Norquist, while Lugar has refused to sign Norquist’s no-tax pledge.

Mourdock’s ads turned Lugar into a cartoon. One quoted the president saying that he’s “worked with Republican senator Dick Lugar to pass a law,” cutting off the part where Obama says “that will secure and destroy some of the world’s deadliest unguarded weapons.” Mourdock’s message to Indiana Republicans: Vote for me and you will never have to worry about the horrifying possibility that your senator will befriend Obama.

Mocking, exaggerated, courting confrontation -- Mourdock is what Republicans long for. Lugar is modest and reasonable. His time served worked against him. Because he has a house in Washington, he was declared to be of Washington. Getting important things done was no excuse. Gone are those halcyon days of George W. Bush when No Child Left Behind, tax cuts, the Patriot Act and TARP passed on bipartisan votes. This is a year when every Republican presidential candidate rejected the notion of trading $10 in spending cuts for each dollar in increased revenue.

In other words: If a Democratic president favors something, it is automatically toxic. All polls show Lugar would have been the stronger candidate against a Democrat in the fall, but party purists would rather be right than win. Farewell, Mr. Lugar. Not now, but someday, you will be missed.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Margaret Carlson at

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