Republican moderates are no longer a dying breed. With Tuesday’s defeat of Sen. 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. 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 Sen. Orrin Hatch’s re-election bid, but its favored candidate chose not to run and Hatch moved sharply right.
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, Sen. Sam Nunn.
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.
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.
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.
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.