Richard Lugar's Loss Is Bad for the U.S.--And for the GOP

Lugar's defeat on Tuesday dealt another blow to strong, pragmatic voices in the Congress and a further erosion of a government that can work.

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Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speaks with reporters off the Senate floor before a series of votes, Tuesday, April 24, 2012, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

Nearly 25 years ago, when I was in my early days as a political consultant, I did a TV spot featuring Democratic Sen. Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island. We were about to shoot in his hideaway in the Capitol, and he and I were chatting as the crew was setting up and lighting.

Senator Pell had just taken over as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from Republican Sen. Richard Lugar. Democrats had regained control of the Senate in 1986 and we were approaching the 1988 elections.

Senator Pell was known for his candor, humility, and self-effacing manner, but even I was surprised when he said to me that he thought Senator Lugar had been a great chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. 

[ Read Peter Roff: What Richard Mourdock's Indiana Win Means for Dick Lugar, GOP]

After all, I was a Democratic consultant, making commercials to make sure Democrats were in power!

"I rather wish he was still the chairman, not me," Senator Pell told me in a whisper.

Of course, Senator Pell was a former foreign service officer, fluent in three European languages, and a well-liked and respected senator. But he was respectful and he admired members of the opposite party, especially Dick Lugar.  After all, they worked together, even when they disagreed with one another. They were also friends.

Lugar's defeat on Tuesday dealt another blow to strong, pragmatic voices in the Congress and a further erosion of a government that can work.  And, sadly, we are seeing the gridlock, the divisiveness, the anger, the hard-right ideology trickling down to all levels of government. 

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Tea Party.]

Senator Lugar was instrumental in so many areas around the world: bringing democracy to the Philippines after the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, passing the Anti-Apartheid Act that opened up South Africa, enacting the Global AIDS Program, and becoming a leader in nuclear nonproliferation.

If you are a Republican and work with Democrats to actually pass something you are suspect.  If you are seen as just a mainstream conservative, never mind a moderate, to the Tea Party, you are toast at their garden party.

This is not healthy for the system and it is not healthy for the Republican Party in the long run. They may even lose this race in Indiana to a moderate Democrat, a solid legislator, someone I also worked for, Rep. Joe Donnelly.

[ Read Robert Schlesinger: The Republican Definition of 'Compromise'

This new crop of "young guns" are not voices of reason or logic—they are a marked change from what many of us experienced in the Congress. They want to destroy government, not save it; they want to fan the flames of anger and discord so they can win elections. It is not what the American people want nor what the country needs.

When Richard Mourdock campaigned against Lugar he said, "I think there needs to be more partisanship" in Washington. Sad.

But maybe Senator Lugar said it best Tuesday night when he compared his philosophy of good government with Mourdock’s beliefs:

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.

There is no doubt in my mind that the late-Sen. Claiborne Pell would be truly sorry about the fate of his friend and colleague, but he would also weep for what is happening to his beloved Senate.