David Hoppe

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:: Pity Dick Lugar

His party's a shambles

By David Hoppe

You have to wonder what Dick Lugar is thinking these days. Here he is, the longest serving Member of Congress in Indiana history, the most senior Republican in the U.S. Senate. Why, he's been in Washington, D.C. since 1976, the year of the Bicentennial. Frampton Comes Alive was a chart sensation. Remember that crazy sounding, talking guitar?

St. Richard, as I like to call him, is going to be 80 years-old this April, just a month before Indiana's Republican primary. In years past, this primary amounted to little more than a gesture, the equivalent of a doorman at the Columbia Club clearing the way, with a hearty, “Welcome home, sir!”

This year is different. Richard Mourdock, the State Treasurer, has decided the time has come to unseat St. Richard. Mourdock is a dour looking fellow who, by his own admission, is charismatically challenged. But this hasn't deterred him from going after Indiana's biggest political game. Rather than allow Lugar a six-year swan song, Mourdock is nipping at Lugar's well-shod heels.

Once, not so long ago, a challenge like this would have been unthinkable. Indiana has traditionally been a state where genuine differences between Republicans and Democrats have been so slim that, when it comes to prestige offices, one party usually defers to the other if there's a candidate who appears to have even a scintilla of strength.

Republicans were content to let Evan Bayh be first a governor and then a senator for as long as he wanted. And Democrats have treated Mitch Daniels in like manner.

The party bosses, who like us to think they're involved in a competitive enterprise, will tell you this has to do with money. They say it's a waste of resources to spend funds on campaigns that are bound to lose. In any place other than Indiana, this is what is known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the Hoosier state, it means that our politics disconcertingly resemble the Soviet-era politburo.

Dick Lugar took to this kind of politics like bread crumbs on a tenderloin. From the days when he was the beloved mayor of Indianapolis, the man who gave us Unigov — a plan to broaden the city's tax base while, at the same time, creating a Republican political machine — through the George Bush, Jr. years, when he voted with that Republican president more than any other Senator, Lugar has been the consummate party animal.

He has even managed to win over most of the state's Democrats. They like his self-deprecating erudition, the common sense touch he brings to such worldly issues as nuclear nonproliferation. This is what makes him a kind of saint — and, at any other time, his Senate seat a virtual sinecure.

But these, as the Chinese proverb puts it, are interesting times. This is especially true when it comes to Lugar's Republican party. Today's version of Republicanism doesn't remotely resemble the party Lugar exemplified back in the 1970's. When Lugar entered the Senate, he joined such Republican colleagues as Jacob Javits, Edward Brooke, Charles Percy and Mark Hatfield — all of whom could pass as liberal Democrats by today's right-wing standards.

It's hard to say what today's Republicans stand for. Driven by the anger of the Tea Party, a semi-grassroots insurgency seemingly driven as much by an inability to reconcile itself to the presence of an African-American president as by his policies, a large number of which have been lifted from previous Republican playbooks, the GOP has devolved into a party of chronic complaint.

That's where Richard Mourdock comes in. Mourdock has based his entire reason for being on the notion that Dick Lugar and Barack Obama are locked in a liberal embrace. On his web site, Mourdock cites what he calls “The Obama Agenda” as a way of contrasting himself with Lugar, saying: “Obama's agenda of runaway federal spending and expanded government control over nearly every aspect of the economy is contrary to the tradition of free enterprise and limited government that makes America great.”

Mourdock goes on to outline what he's against (abortion, supposedly liberal supreme court justices, illegal immigrants, saving the auto industry, TARP, the START Treaty, earmarks and Obamacare) and what he's for (guns and a balanced federal budget).

Poor St. Richard. To hear Mourdock tell it, our senior senator is now sleepwalking through an endless senior moment. Why, he doesn't even know where he lives! He sold the house on Highwoods Ct. that he lists as his residence in 1977. Dubious origins are apparently another thing Lugar and Obama have in common.

Lugar claims that Linley Pearson, Indiana's Republican Attorney General back in the day, told him not to worry about the matter of where he actually lived. The current AG, another Republican, Greg Zoeller, agrees. Nothing to look at here, folks.

For a man knee-deep in the shambles his political party has become, this agreement across generations of Republican hackdom must be reassuring. This is finally the kind of loyalty one could always count on from local subordinates, the apparatchiks who, when called on, would carry water for their elders. It's just like old times.