May 09 2012

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A Giant Felled in the Senate

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Defeated for Trying to Make Washington Work

I first ran into Dick Lugar – almost literally – on the 14th Street bridge, which connects northern Virginia with Washington, DC.

It was rush hour and I was late for work.

As I switched lanes impatiently, looking for an opening, I settled in behind a very modest car that was driving at a deliberate pace in the right lane. I very nearly rear-ended it as the vehicle did not speed up with the rest of traffic, apparently to keep a safe distance between cars.

When I changed lanes and passed the car, I was shocked to see Senator Richard Lugar, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – seat belt on,  hands on the wheel at 10 and 2, eyes looking intently ahead – in the driver’s seat.

I suppose I had expected something more regal. A chauffeured limo or something. I marveled that a powerful and consequential Senate elder statesman conducted himself in a manner that was no different than any of the rest of us on the road, simply trying to get to work.  It spoke to a humility that is rare among the out-sized egos in Washington, particularly at the top of the power pyramid.

Little did I know that my experience with Senator Lugar that day would turn out to be a metaphor for his career.

During my service in the Bush administration, I worked extensively with Senator Lugar’s committee and staff.

You can tell a lot about a Member by the people they choose to staff key positions. The Lugar people, to a  person, were always dedicated, intelligent and well informed, infused with a heavy dose of common sense. Invariably, they understood the issues, and were focused on advancing US national policy.

The staff reflected the man.

When I met him in person the first time, I was struck by his innate courtesy and the strong sense of integrity he emanated. Here was a man who had forgotten more about US foreign policy then I knew. Yet he put on no ares.

During his long service in the Senate, and particularly after the fall of the Soviet Union, he dedicated himself to securing nuclear weapons and nuclear fuel in the former Soviet states where instability posed real risks that weapons of mass destruction would fall into the wrong hands. This he did with dedication even though the cameras were off following the latest scandal or fad, uninterested in this seemingly dull but profoundly important work.

With that same sense of dedication, Lugar ran a long-shot campaign for President in 1996, in part to remind voters that foreign policy still mattered during the Clinton interregnum. While he did not gain traction, he stayed true to his convictions.

Which brings us to today’s toxic political atmosphere and the central Lugar paradox.

Senator Lugar is a man of deep convictions. Check his lifetime conservative rating – 68%. Within that composite total, Lugar received a rating of 75% from both Americans for Tax Reform and the Right to Life forum. His lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is 77%. This is hardly a record of a feckless, political weather-vane.

But crucially, Lugar did not, and does not, believe that having strong convictions prevents a Senator from working across the aisle – to find common purpose with the opposition on matters where you can both agree.  Not for the sake of compromise, mind you, but for the sake of the country.

During my time in the Bush administration, working with the Foreign Relations Committee was  a welcome respite. The grown-ups were in charge. The majority and minority worked constructively and collegially together. The goal was the best attainable policy, not partisan advantage.

Which is not to say that the Committee, like any other institution in Congress, is immune to politics, agendas and widely different views and ideologies. It was. But what was crucial, and different from other relationships in Congress, was that the parties involved were pragmatic and committed to the best possible outcome, not just the best outcome for their side.

And a hat tip here to Vice President Biden, who swapped the chairmanship of Foreign Relations with Senator Lugar in the ’00s. He was as committed as Lugar to a smooth running committee that, despite policy or ideological differences, would work collectively for the best possible result.

It is relationship management that harkins back to an different age, and a lesson lost on both Houses of Congress today.

Senator Lugar lost in the Indiana Republican Senate primary last night. The next six months in the Senate will be his last. This is a big loss for the Senate and a profound loss for America.

Lugar’s loss at the hands of Tea Party supported Richard Mourdock, was attributed in large part to Lugar’s willingness to cooperate. Mourdock’s campaign ran a distorted and frankly dishonest ad that strung together clips of leading Democrats – including President Obama – crediting Lugar for bipartisan compromise as if this was a political hate crime.

What Mourdock never told the audience was what Lugar had actually worked to accomplish in bipartisan fashion. In the case of then-Senator Obama, the Lugar-Obama Act provided $75 million to detect and interdict weapons and materials of mass destruction.

Tell me, who could be against that?

Would a hypothetical Senator Mourdock vote against such a bill simply because it was sponsored in bipartisan fashion?

This is the kind of hogwash that substitutes for serious discussion in Washington these days, and contributes to Congress’ 17% approval rating.

Yet, Mourdock’s campaign was rooted in the promise to “confront” Democrats as he lambasted Lugar for his willingness to find common ground.  “Compromise” according to Mourdock, is when Democrats join Republicans in their agenda.

Should Mourdock win, let’s see how that works out for him.

In the aftermath of the primary, Lugar’s loss is two-fold.

Not only has the US lost a Senator with deep understanding of US foreign policy and the government apparatus that operates it, but if Republican candidate Mourdock does in fact win in November, the chances of reaching a lasting and sustainable deal on our most complex problems will be that much further away.

Remember, the Democrats passed Obamacare without Republican votes. It was a straight ideological play. It remains the only piece of social legislation in the last 50 years that has not enjoyed bipartisan support. As a result, it has never enjoyed majority support with the American people, and has been the source of intense litigation, resulting in the Supreme Court’s review.

Obamacare illuminates where Mourdock’s stated goal ultimately takes us.  And there is no time left to make these kind of mistakes again.

Senator Lugar innately understood this.

A decade ago, driving to work, I saw a powerful but modest public servant on the road. He was in the right lane, but moving at his own, deliberate pace.

Yesterday, that same man simply wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the enthusiastic, but ultimately short-sighted grassroots of his state.

Washington will be a worse place for his absence come January.




1 comment

  1. senbi

    Chris, great article as always, and points out one of the most underrated issues of the current administration, the hyperpartisanship in the country that has breed from the policies adopted by the democratic party. The in-your-face, my-way-or-the-highway politics of the past four years has really openned the pandora’s box of one-sided, hard left or right partisianship, as evidenced in your recent posting of the defeat of Senator Lugar, a principled public official that recognized that the country works best when two sides collaborate for the best solution. I hope people can return to the fundamental strength of our governement, the balance of powers, which leads to the melding of different ideas to come up with the best possible solution.

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