The Importance of Dick Lugar’s Farewell Warning

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Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar did not go quietly, after losing his primary contest Tuesday in Indiana to a Tea Party-backed challenger, Richard Mourdock. And if there is one thing the American people need to read today, it is his farewell missive, which may prove to be as prescient and long lasting as Dwight Eisenhower’s 1961 exit speech warning of the coming military industrial complex. Here is the heart of what Lugar wrote, sentiments which have been echoed less eloquently by the other recent casualties of the partisan furies that now engulf this nation:

If Mr. Mourdock is elected, I want him to be a good Senator. But that will require him to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington. He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party. His answer to the inevitable roadblocks he will encounter in Congress is merely to campaign for more Republicans who embrace the same partisan outlook. He has pledged his support to groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it.

This is not conducive to problem solving and governance. And he will find that unless he modifies his approach, he will achieve little as a legislator. Worse, he will help delay solutions that are totally beyond the capacity of partisan majorities to achieve. The most consequential of these is stabilizing and reversing the Federal debt in an era when millions of baby boomers are retiring. There is little likelihood that either party will be able to impose their favored budget solutions on the other without some degree of compromise.

Unfortunately, we have an increasing number of legislators in both parties who have adopted an unrelenting partisan viewpoint. This shows up in countless vote studies that find diminishing intersections between Democrat and Republican positions. Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum are dominating the political debate in our country. And partisan groups, including outside groups that spent millions against me in this race, are determined to see that this continues. They have worked to make it as difficult as possible for a legislator of either party to hold independent views or engage in constructive compromise. If that attitude prevails in American politics, our government will remain mired in the dysfunction we have witnessed during the last several years. And I believe that if this attitude expands in the Republican Party, we will be relegated to minority status. Parties don’t succeed for long if they stop appealing to voters who may disagree with them on some issues.

Legislators should have an ideological grounding and strong beliefs identifiable to their constituents. I believe I have offered that throughout my career. But ideology cannot be a substitute for a determination to think for yourself, for a willingness to study an issue objectively, and for the fortitude to sometimes disagree with your party or even your constituents. Like Edmund Burke, I believe leaders owe the people they represent their best judgment.

Too often bipartisanship is equated with centrism or deal cutting. Bipartisanship is not the opposite of principle. One can be very conservative or very liberal and still have a bipartisan mindset. Such a mindset acknowledges that the other party is also patriotic and may have some good ideas. It acknowledges that national unity is important, and that aggressive partisanship deepens cynicism, sharpens political vendettas, and depletes the national reserve of good will that is critical to our survival in hard times. Certainly this was understood by President Reagan, who worked with Democrats frequently and showed flexibility that would be ridiculed today – from assenting to tax increases in the 1983 Social Security fix, to compromising on landmark tax reform legislation in 1986, to advancing arms control agreements in his second term.

I don’t remember a time when so many topics have become politically unmentionable in one party or the other. Republicans cannot admit to any nuance in policy on climate change. Republican members are now expected to take pledges against any tax increases. For two consecutive Presidential nomination cycles, GOP candidates competed with one another to express the most strident anti-immigration view, even at the risk of alienating a huge voting bloc. Similarly, most Democrats are constrained when talking about such issues as entitlement cuts, tort reform, and trade agreements. Our political system is losing its ability to even explore alternatives. If fealty to these pledges continues to expand, legislators may pledge their way into irrelevance. Voters will be electing a slate of inflexible positions rather than a leader.

I hope that as a nation we aspire to more than that. I hope we will demand judgment from our leaders. I continue to believe that Hoosiers value constructive leadership. I would not have run for office if I did not believe that.

As someone who has seen much in the politics of our country and our state, I am able to take the long view. I have not lost my enthusiasm for the role played by the United States Senate. Nor has my belief in conservative principles been diminished. I expect great things from my party and my country. I hope all who participated in this election share in this optimism.

Since the 2004 elections, as the United States tipped into relative decline, the answer of partisans on both sides of the political equation has been more often than not unanimous: Each defeat must be dealt with a purge, a return to purity and a fiercer attack. (Yes, Democrats did elect some red state Democrats in 2006, but they also did it by refusing to engage Republicans on Social Security, and by riding a wave of fiercely partisan Netroots momentum.)

More recently, we have seen this play out fiercely on the right, which has been more stung by defeat in recent years and thus more prone to retrenching in the extremes. But it is also present on the left to a lesser extent, as Reps. Jason Altmire and Tim Holden of Pennsylvania can tell you. And should Obama lose in November, and Republicans retake the Senate and hold the House, watch out. The cycle is likely to begin again.

There are those that accuse the press of an ideology of moderation and of false equivalency whenever these concerns are raised. But let me make one more appeal to reconsider these default positions. It may be true that the left is not left enough, or that the right is not right enough, and that either or both outcomes will yield an American rebirth not seen since the 1960s. But it is also true that in a furious and divided nation neither the left nor the right has an apparent path or proven ability to gain and hold power in the current environment under the current system. So the result is stagnation, and worse, the active harming of American interests by elected leaders, as we saw last August with the debt limit showdown.

Lugar is right, even if his loss Tuesday was far more complicated than he lets on. Voters are now in danger of electing a slate of inflexible positions instead of leaders, clinging to the fantasy that their ideological ends can triumph by brute force of will. This is, to say the least, not what the Founding Fathers envisioned. The nation’s capital now resembles a marriage in the tumult of a messy divorce. Both the mother and father keep getting more angry with each other, and hiring more expensive lawyers, and threatening greater demands and retributions. It may be that only one is truly at fault, and that the other is truly the victim, but that is beside the point for the children. Of course today’s voters are not children, but their children, who are likely to bear the brunt of the dysfunction, certainly are.

As it stands, the nation probably lacks a mechanism that will allow it to recover from its spiral of deepening ideological divide and partisanship as long as pain and anger felt by so many at the nation’s relative decline continues. As a result, the economy is at great risk of remaining lackluster for longer than is needed, and the American people are likely to suffer more than is needed, saddled with a policy framework that is less about rational response than political ideology and expediency. That is, as Lugar points out, a shame.

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