Sen. Lugar's last lesson became his finest legacy
By Martin Schram
He is today the Washington That Was. The best of it, by far.
Yet even after 391,689 of his fellow Indiana Republicans delivered the harsh GOP primary election message that his 36-year career as a senator is over, Richard "Dick" Lugar (who received just 257,687 votes) still stands tall in a capital city where too many monuments seem to have shrunk. Or, more accurately, shirked.
To be sure, the Washington That Was never suffered a shortage of egos. It huffed and puffed and earned its fame as a late-night punch line. Yet in times of crisis, the Washington That Was always knew when it was time to check its egos at the cloakroom door ― and act.
The Washington That Was somehow got it about this essential truth: In a crisis, the line between governance and gridlock becomes democracy's bottom line. Faced with a crisis, inaction becomes the worst action of all.
But during Barack Obama's presidency, we have too often seen Washington paralyzed by its own politics ― gridlocked as our economy faltered, our deficit soared and our nation's credit rating was downgraded.
Indiana was showered with negative TV messages financed from afar that blasted Lugar for having voted to bail out the auto industry (never mind that it was a success story that brought thousands of jobs back to Indiana) and for having backed the bailout of Wall Street's bankers (never mind that it was Republican President George W. Bush's plan) and backed Obama's two U.S. Supreme Court nominees.
But it fit perfectly with GOP challenger Richard Mourdock's pathetic campaign theme ― that the problem with Washington is "bipartisanship." Except for one variety: "Bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view."
What Mourdock and those who voted for him don't get is that when America is in trouble and action is needed, it is neither patriotic nor principled to petulantly stomp one's foot and refuse to act, just because acting will require supporting a Democratic president.
If our Founding Fathers had adopted that view of the purity of partisanship, we would never have agreed on our Constitution, and we would still be struggling to form our more perfect union.
But of course, Lugar's fate was never really about those bailouts or Supreme Court seats. And it certainly wasn't about his long record of delivering for Hoosiers ― or his historic bipartisan program, reached with Georgia Democrat Sam Nunn, to safeguard the planet against loose nukes falling into terrorists' hands.
No, Lugar was just the latest victim of an alarming trend I've written about for years ― the rise of the politics of hate. Washington has become Hate City. Its pols and strategists now often prefer to gain power by not just defeating the other party, but by smearing and destroying an opponent and never compromising to secure needed action. In Congress and in the heartland, there is new intolerance and even new venom in public pronouncements.
In one of the finest concession speeches ever, Lugar praised ― but then sought to lecture, if not mentor ― the victor: "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."
Lugar's place in history is assured. When the winner of the next presidential election ― whether it's Mitt Romney (for whom Lugar plans to vote) or Obama (whom he graciously mentored as a fellow senator) ― needs a new secretary of state or a U.N. ambassador, Lugar will surely be at the top of the list of candidates.
But our place in history is still up to us to decide. We have sat by, permitting and sometimes feeding the politics of hate that has given us Hate City. It's up to us to demand better of those who seek our votes.
Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.