Dick Lugar is no moderate Republican. He was dubbed “Richard Nixon’s favorite mayor,” back when he ran Indianapolis in the ’70s, and Ronald Reagan’s most reliable supporter in the US Senate, back in the ’80s. As he grayed and thickened, Lugar became more statesmanlike, chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Most notably, he paired with the conservative Democrat Sam Nunn of Georgia to push through legislation to tie down “loose nukes,” the bombs and nuclear fuel rods that were split among the republics of the former Soviet Union.
It’s hard to imagine a more important effort: Each of the 7,500 warheads it has so far deactivated could have become a terrorist weapon of mass destruction. The Nunn-Lugar program so impressed a young senator named Barack Obama that he insisted it would be the most urgent priority of his presidency.
The Nunn-Lugar bill is, shockingly, one of the reasons right-wingers in Indiana have turned on their senior senator. Its patina of bipartisanship clouded his image; the fact that the program so impressed Obama marked Lugar as a Democratic collaborator. Lugar, in fact, opposes most of Obama’s agenda, but he’s also a knowledgeable, collegial figure who has helped achieve bipartisan goals. That alone condemns him in the eyes of Tea Party stalwarts, who are rallying around state Treasurer Richard Mourdock in the May 8 Republican primary.
Caught in the middle are Indiana’s Democrats and independents. They can take Republican ballots, and that presents a dilemma. While Lugar is clearly the preferable candidate, many Democrats are salivating at the thought of a Mourdock victory, because the seat would become a target for a Democratic takeover. With an uncontested senatorial primary of their own — US Representative Joe Donnelly will be their nominee — most of Indiana’s Democrats are content to stay home and let the Republicans slug it out.
But they shouldn’t. If Democrats care about bipartisanship, and are disgusted by the congressional Republicans’ wall of resistance to any policy associated with Obama, they should jump in and save Dick Lugar.
The notion that congressional minorities can, by halting progress even on middle-ground legislation, engineer their comebacks is the most obnoxious political strategy to emerge in decades. By blocking such bills, the minority legislators make the president and his allies seem impotent, depressing their supporters. As Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, has pointed out: If bipartisan legislation is successful, it helps the president and other incumbents; if nothing gets through, however, voters become outraged and demand a change. The only change available is the minority party that’s done all the blocking.
The Democrats tried a version of this strategy after 2006, but only after six fitful years of alternately cooperating and sparring with the Bush administration. Afterward, when Bush needed their support on the politically treacherous bank bailout, they gave it. Republicans have taken a more scorched-earth approach, blocking even those programs that they themselves once introduced — from the individual mandate for health insurance, to “cap-and-trade” plans to limit carbon pollution, to loans for renewable energy — mainly because Obama embraced them.
Senior senators like Lugar — who, after 36 years, has the right to his own judgment — can be checks on destructive partisanship. So conservative activists try to rein them in with right-wing challenges in Republican primaries, knowing that in a conservatives-only contest, the loudest and most unyielding conservative is likely to win. Fear of such challenges cause many GOP incumbents to kowtow to extremists; some, like Maine’s Olympia Snowe, are so put off they leave of their own accord.
The best way for Democrats to combat this tactic is not to lick their chops in hopes of a Tea Party victory. True, those candidates can be easier targets for Democrats. But some extremists win, pulling the Republicans further to the right. And conservative activists don’t mind losing to prove a point. Former GOP senators like Bob Bennett of Utah and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania can attest to the cost of deviating from the activist-enforced line. Successful right-wing primary challenges can gain the conservative movement more through the terrified obsequiousness of GOP officeholders than it would lose in a few Democratic victories.
For Democrats and independents to rally around Lugar might appear to confirm that he is, as the Mourdock forces ludicrously claim, “Obama’s favorite senator.” But it would also show that dignity and commitment to public service have a broader appeal than crass adherence to partisan destructiveness. Indiana Democrats should make sure the best candidate wins the Republican primary, even if they plan to vote against him in November.
Peter S. Canellos is the editorial page editor of the Globe.