News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

June 12, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Walking the fine bipartisan line

Apparently, Richard Lugar thinks too much. He’s too reasonable, too willing to listen and compromise.

At least that’s the black-and-white picture painted by the people from the tea party and far-right wings of Lugar’s party, the Republicans. His votes in the U.S. Senate too often veer off the one-way ideological street his critics follow. Despite a largely conservative voting record, Lugar also supported the federal bailouts of General Motors, Chrysler and the financial markets, and legislation protecting the environment and controlling guns. He even voted to confirm the two women President Obama nominated to the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

And, most damning, the president openly admires Lugar.

In this polarized political climate, it’s not easy being “Obama’s favorite Republican,” even though Lugar never sought that label.

His occasional departures from hard-line conservatism have put his six-term Senate position in jeopardy.

For the first time since he won the seat in 1976, he will face a challenger in a primary election. Indiana’s Republican state treasurer Richard Mourdock is running against the 79-year-old Lugar in the 2012 election, declaring “It’s time.” The situation is a vast change from 2006, when Lugar received no challenge from a Republican or Democrat.

To be sure, competition can improve public officials.

Lugar’s rivals insist that — though he’s the most respected source of foreign policy advice on Capitol Hill — the senator has stronger connections to Washington movers and shakers than folks back home in Indiana. As overstated as that complaint is, the 2012 campaign already has reacquainted Lugar with a Hoosier populace that has given him landslide victories with 68, 67, 67 and 87 percent of the vote in the last four elections. His trek through Indiana cities and towns this month included a stop in Terre Haute, where a scenic grove of trees in Dobbs Park was named in his honor.

In dedicating the Richard G. Lugar Grove, Terre Haute Chamber of Commerce executive director Rod Henry said, “We salute an individual who has had a big impact on the community’s growth and development.”

Lugar seemed humbled by the gesture in an interview with the Tribune-Star Editorial Board later that afternoon.

But along with the praise, he’s clearly heard the gripes of people no longer impressed by a statesman with a reputation for bipartisanship, especially a Republican who put his name on a 2006 Senate bill (to control the spread of weapons of mass destruction) alongside that of then-Sen. Barack Obama. In a sign the far-right wing of the party has fazed Lugar, his voting pattern has stiffened. According to the Washington Post congressional database, Lugar voted with his party a modest 82 percent of the time during the 111th Congress. This year, with the GOP takeover of the U.S. House and Mourdock’s challenge under way, Lugar has voted with the Republicans 97 percent of the time, as noted in a Politico.com report.

He’s also ramped up criticism of the president’s policies. Last month, Lugar declined to co-sponsor the Dream Act — which offers a path for U.S. citizenship for young illegal aliens who serve in the military or progress toward a college degree — after he’d served as co-sponsor of that bipartisan legislation in the past.

Many Hoosiers (and Americans, for that matter) trust Lugar’s style of independent thinking and appreciate his unwillingness to be chained to an ideology. They don’t want to see him turn narrow-minded. Those supporters may not matter next May, though. Even if 60 percent of Hoosiers support Lugar, as polls by his staff indicate, that favorable block includes thousands of independents, moderates and Democrats who may not ask for a Republican ballot in the primary. To survive, Lugar must appeal to people who will actually vote in the Republican primary.

Through his comments and Senate actions this year, Lugar appears to be reaffirming his credentials to that GOP faction.

When asked what he would say to irate voters demanding hard-line conservatism, Lugar told the Tribune-Star Editorial Board, “My response is that I believe I can be most helpful to you who feel this way. First of all, I have a very conservative voting record, and that seems to be the criteria here. During all of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, I had the highest percentage of support for any senator in the Republican Party for Ronald Reagan’s programs.”

Then again, that was a different era. Reagan was a Republican icon who actually lunched frequently with his chief political rival, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, the top Democrat. In 2011, the last thing Lugar’s critics want to see is an image of him positively interacting with the No. 1 Democrat, President Obama. Yet, that image is out there, haunting Lugar’s re-election campaign. It’s a picture of then-Sen. Obama standing beside Lugar on a bipartisan diplomatic trip to Russia in August 2005.

During the 2008 presidential race, Obama referred to the trip during a televised Democratic debate. Lugar recalled that moment, when the future president deflected a question about controversial minister Jeremiah Wright. “Obama said, ‘Pay no attention to [Wright]. If I want business or economic advice, I call on Warren Buffett,’ which sounds like a very sound person to call on,” Lugar remembered. “And he said, ‘If I want foreign policy advice, or national security, I call on Dick Lugar.’

“I thought, ‘Oh, my. Thank you, Barack, for your confidence,’” Lugar continued, laughing with a dose of sarcasm. “But this is sort of grist for the mill if you were a tea party member and Obama, you know, is so objectionable.”

In describing his political predicament, Lugar used his co-sponsorship of the FairTax Act, which would eliminate the federal income tax and the IRS, and replace those with a 23-percent sales tax on consumer goods and services. The senator — a former Rhodes Scholar — can explain the FairTax (and any other legislative issue) without notes or prompting from aides. He’ll never need a staffer to clear up a gaffe or put spin on an off-the-cuff remark. Still, Lugar speaks in a dry, methodical tone unsuitable for TV sound bites, without pounding his fist on a table and barking, “Hell, no.”

And, though he seems more reluctant to do so in the run-up to the 2012 primary, Lugar also has been unafraid to occasionally agree with Democrats, including President Obama.

The lack of Senate members willing to think on bipartisan terms makes passage of his FairTax idea a longshot, he admitted.

“But I think there has to be a constructive program out there on the horizon, as opposed to just saying, ‘We’re going to reclaim America,’ or do this or that,” Lugar told the Tribune-Star Editorial Board. “So that’s what I would say to people, that I’m the kind of person that can put together complex ideas when there are very difficult problems, and try to bring about solutions and find majorities to vote for them, so they happen, as opposed to being simply doctrines that are out there undeveloped.”

Obviously, Lugar is someone who listens, and — most significantly — is listened to by others. Congress needs more people like that.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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