Conservatives imagine Lugar has a ‘tude –when he’s simply making a point


Full disclosure: with yesterday’s defeat of Indiana Senator Richard Lugar, this independent political commentator believes the American people lost a decent and experienced legislator. As I wrote in two previous posts here and here (the second of which the eminent Peggy Noonan agreed with), Lugar had a stand-out record of achievement in working across party lines to advance security policy that should have counted with voters more than ever in our terrorist age.

Today brought a strange reaction from the right, as pundits James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal  and John Tabin of the American Spectator characterized Lugar as ‘Sore Lugar.’ This turn of phrase might have been passably witty if indeed the Senator had exhibited even the slightest bad manners, sulkiness, unreasonableness, etc., in defeat, but having read the Senator’s reasoned and respectful statement–in which he laments, in polite and gentlemanly fashion–the dearth of bipartisanship and independent-thinking in Congress, I can’t see how this ridicule, or dismissal of the Senator’s stature, makes the remotest sense.

The perception that Lugar is being petulant may say more about his critics than about the Senator, and to my mind seems to help him argue his case. In his statement, Lugar warns that, in demanding near-total fealty from candidates to party-line ideologies, “Our political system is losing its ability to even explore alternatives.  If fealty to these pledges continues to expand, legislators may pledge their way into irrelevance.  Voters will be electing a slate of inflexible positions rather than a leader.”

He also warns that, “Legislators should have an ideological grounding and strong beliefs identifiable to their constituents.   … But ideology cannot be a substitute for a determination to think for yourself, for a willingness to study an issue objectively, and for the fortitude to sometimes disagree with your party or even your constituents” and writes, “partisan groups, including outside groups that spent millions against me in this race … have worked to make it as difficult as possible for a legislator of either party to hold independent views or engage in constructive compromise.  If that attitude prevails in American politics, our government will remain mired in the dysfunction we have witnessed during the last several years.  And I believe that if this attitude expands in the Republican Party, we will be relegated to minority status. Parties don’t succeed for long if they stop appealing to voters who may disagree with them on some issues.”

Lugar’s tone is not “sore.” Might it be the case that, in viewing such admonition as un-statesmanlike, Lugar’s critics are simply reacting in thin-skinned fashion to criticism that cuts a little too close to the bone? Have conservatives begun to go the way of the left, whose members all too often react to legitimate criticism as if it were personal attack and discrimination?

Since when is it inappropriate for a statesman to warn Americans about potential pitfalls? Wasn’t it George Washington, our country’s greatest and original statesman, who warned Americans (I believe upon his retirement): “Beware foreign entanglements” –an admonition that partisan followers of President George W. Bush would have been well served to heed seriously, rather than following him naively, albeit with good intentions, into Iraq (as one who, with serious reservations, did support the Iraq policy and still believes this issue was and is not black and white, it is difficult for me to acknowledge the following, but on balance, from this vantage point, it would appear to have been a policy whose dangers and complexities were profoundly, tragically underestimated).

It’s a statesman’s job to share what he has learned, with humility and a sincere concern for the country. And at a time of terrible fractiousness, Dick Lugar  has tried to do so. His message: moderation can be a virtue, and compromise–of the principled variety, that requires genuine listening, and the ability to understand if not agree with the other’s point of view– is to be valued, not derided. People who understand this, who act with respect for others’ needs, without devaluing or subordinating their own needs–are successful in advancing useful policy, and often successful in life, particularly in relationships. Extremists and hard-drivers who stick stubbornly to their guns no matter what often win life’s elections and other battles, such as climbing the ladder to career success, due to their tenacity and single-minded focus, but tend often to be losers at relationships. To confuse ability to compromise and perceive nuance with spinelessness or lack of principle is the error of the fanatic, the extremist, or even of the simply–and ultimately, the foolishly– doctrinaire.

Extremist fervor can–in service to a moral cause–move mountains and change the world. When Patrick Henry proclaimed, “Give me liberty or give me death!” his was not the voice of the moderate.

But after the revolution’s over, what makes day-to-day life work is compromise. Adherence to principle without the ability to compromise is like passion without compatibility. Without people who have the general–and emotional–intelligence to fully grasp complex issues and also to grasp opposing points of view, and to work with others to hammer out and implement solutions–the country is destined to move toward more and more fractious, polarized politics, and possibly, in time, toward serious instability. That is what Lugar is warning about. Of course, disagreement and controversy are part of a healthy free society. But moderates help ensure the center holds. When moderation itself is viewed as suspect, and a statesman can’t even make a straightforward statement about the very real hazards of extreme ideological polarization without being labeled “Sore Lugar,” one has to wonder what the future holds.

Maybe all this blind partisanship will have the boomerang effect of producing more independent voters each year – which certainly seems to be where we’re headed.

In which case, Lugar’s admonition to his fellow Republicans in particular will have been prescient.

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