WASHINGTON — The US Senate lost a beacon of bipartisanship when Republican Richard Lugar was trounced by an ultra-conservative challenger — the latest erosion of a moderate congressional middle that will leave Washington more polarized than ever.
The crushing defeat of the longest-serving US senator from Indiana in a party primary on Tuesday is a glaring example of anti-incumbent sentiment and a warning to lawmakers of both parties — not to mention President Barack Obama — in a pivotal election year.
Lugar, 80, considered himself a true conservative but his propensity to work deals with Democrats over the decades — and often siding with Obama or Senator John Kerry in the Foreign Relations Committee — steadily eroded his influence in a legislative body consumed by gridlock.
With hyper-polarization emerging as the Capitol Hill norm, the six-term Lugar was seen as increasingly out of touch with a changing political landscape that more often than not rewards ideological rigidity over cooperation.
After all, Lugar lost to a candidate, Indiana state treasurer Richard Mourdock, who once described bipartisanship as “Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”
Conservative Republican Senator Rand Paul told AFP that it would be naive as a lawmaker to believe in “this whole idea that we need to all be bipartisan, hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya.’”
“Everybody wants everybody to compromise, but you can’t compromise with a party that has no positions,” Paul said of Democrats who he believes have failed to step up to the plate on entitlement, tax or budgetary reform.
Paul was among a handful of lawmakers swept into the Senate in 2010 on support from the tea party, the low-tax, small-government movement that targeted moderate Republican incumbents and put forward anti-establishment alternatives like Paul.
Lugar spent years in statesmanlike cooperation with Democrats on some of the major foreign policy issues of his time, namely nuclear non-proliferation.
It was notable that some of the warmest words of tribute Wednesday after Lugar’s defeat came from Democrats.
“He refused to allow this march to an orthodoxy about ideology and partisan politics to get in the way” of the business of Congress, Kerry said on the Senate floor.
“That’s something we’re going to lose: the institutional experience, the judgment, and the wisdom of the approach on some of those issues.”
Former Republican senator Chuck Hagel, who served 12 years in the chamber until 2008, was irate that his colleague may have been done in for his non-ideological temperament.
“You’re penalized in the Republican Party today if you have a relationship” with someone outside the party, he told National Public Radio.
“What’s the point of that? I remember a time when a relationship with a president was pretty significant and people used to be proud of that.”
Lugar joins a string of moderates who are leaving the Senate at the end of this year, including Democrats Ben Nelson, Jim Webb and Kent Conrad, and Republican Olympia Snowe, who said in February she was quitting because of harsh polarization on Capitol Hill.
The attrition rate of moderate Republicans has been especially severe — 78 percent — since 2005, according to a study by New York Times blog FiveThirtyEight.
Orrin Hatch is trying not to become the next victim. The Republican joined the Senate on the same day as Lugar nearly 36 years ago, and he too is facing a tough primary challenge, in June against a tea-party conservative state senator.
After fellow Utah Republican senator Bob Bennett was bounced out by a tea-party candidate in 2010, Hatch has given himself a conservative makeover.
Lugar wished Mourdock well, but in a pair of searing concession statements, he warned against the increasing hostility in Congress.
“We are experiencing deep political divisions in our society right now. And these divisions have stalemated progress in critical areas,” Lugar said in a statement, adding that he knew his “work with then-senator Barack Obama would be used against me, even if our relationship were overhyped.”
Tripp Baird, director of Senate relations for the conservative Heritage Action for America, said part of Lugar’s problem was forging consensus when none was needed.
Under an Obama administration, “getting stuff done has been terrible,” Baird told AFP.
“If it’s not good policy that fixes the problem, then don’t do anything.”