Twilight of the Moderates
An early obituary for Sen. Richard Lugar, brought to you by the Tea Party.
The combined efforts of Mourdock and the Hoosiers group scared other challengers out of the race. (Last summer, when a conservative state senator threatened to get into the race, I assumed Lugar would play off the division and win again.) Lugar hustled. His American Conservative Union voting record—71 percent—was defensible, maybe. The hardest knocks against him seemed to be that he’d voted for TARP and for Barack Obama’s SCOTUS nominees, and that he’d appeared in an Obama ’08 TV ad trumpeting the work the two of them did on securing “loose nukes” in Asia. “I'm pleased we had the association Sen. Obama describes,” Lugar shrugged, shortly before Obama won the election—and Indiana.
Some may call it treason. The people who’ll probably beat Lugar express no malice about it. Taking out the Republicans who compromise with Democrats is a cold, logical decision, the easiest one they make. Jim Bopp, a lawyer who’s worked on dozens of lawsuits to break up the campaign finance regime, was one of the first notable Indiana Republicans to dump Lugar. His USA Super PAC sent out around $100,000 of mail for Mourdock. It wasn’t personal.
“Lugar is an honest and decent man, but he's voted wrong too many times,” says Bopp. “His approach is just wrong now. When Reagan was president, we could afford someone who approaches these issues in a moderate, bipartisan way. But now we have an administration out to destroy us, and we need a fighter. Here’s another way to say it. We’re in a march to socialism. Obama’s getting us there at 100 mph. If you endorse bipartisanship, you get us there at 50 mph.”
Bopp, like the other Mourdockians, hopes that a Lugar loss will put the fear of Tea back into Republicans. Nearly four years after TARP, the “bailout” can still be used to end the career of anyone who voted for it. The debit limit, that crisis Washington would love to rinse out of its memory banks, has become a new litmus test, a sort of TARP 2. Lugar voted for the debt ceiling deal in 2011; Hatch, who’s also facing a primary, voted against it. Hatch is still expected to survive. That shouldn’t matter. If Lugar goes down, and if the movement takes out freshman Rep. Larry Bucshon in Indiana’s 8th district, then the debt limit litmus test will be ready for the rest of the party.
The Mourdockians are confident today because of the polls, because of the ground game, because of Lugar’s apparent desperation. They’re also confident because the Lugar obituary—the “he was too good for them” storyline—has already popped up in the op-eds. Dana Milbank’s snark-free Indiana column pre-emptively shamed voters for their purity test, because “Lugar’s bipartisanship was in the service of protecting millions of Americans from nuclear, chemical and biological terrorism.” This didn’t really move Fettig.
“I’ve read New START, and it doesn’t address North Korea or Iran,” says Fettig. “Why would we want to limit our arsenal and hope that Russia does when we’re not even addressing other nations? I've been to Lugar’s office in D.C. It's wallpapered with pictures of him climbing in nuclear silos in Russia. I guess that's the legacy he sees himself leaving, but it's an outdated legacy. He not only refuses to leave the beltway, he refuses to leave the 1980s.”
That, says Fettig, is a real shame. “Do we like the fact that the nation is polarized? No. But the fact of the matter is, it is. From the media’s perspective, it’s OK to be bipartisan if you're a Republican. But Democrats never reach across the aisle. Their idea of compromise is complete surrender. Well, we want a guy who doesn’t give in. Yes, politics is polarized. Until one side or the other wins, that's the way it needs to be.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.