Opinion and Forefront

BONIFIELD: Lugar astutely pegged Mourdock, too late

May 19, 2012

Jake BonifieldAs the dust settles on the 2012 primary season, Hoosiers are left with a salient reminder of what was lost and worrying harbingers of what lies ahead.

A defeated Richard Lugar stood at the podium election night, delivering a statesmanlike goodbye early enough in the evening that many had not yet tuned in. The race between the senator and the insurgent Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock was settled by astronomical margins given the former’s history and reputation as a favorite son. Richard Lugar’s farewell fit his character, embracing his defeat with grace at the microphone.

The final epitaph to his 35-year career in the Senate, and the definitive warning about his opponent, also came from the 80-year-old, this time in writing, and without the diplomatic tone.

He was vanquished on unfamiliar turf, or at least foreign turf. The 2010 races that brought us Sharon Angle, Christine O’Donnell and a host of extreme, far-right candidates running in the name of fiscal responsibility, Constitutionalism and anti-incumbent fervor introduced us to the damage that could be done against once-invincible office holders.

Lugar’s team appears to have not tuned in. Instead of taking the fight to Mourdock in a way that reminded voters what they would be losing if they embraced his dangerous message, we are left to read the words post-mortem.

As one conservative friend of mine asked, “Why didn’t he say this during the election?”

“[Richard Mourdock’s] embrace of an unrelenting partisan mind-set is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate,” he offered. He went on to say that Mourdock’s philosophy was at odds with sensible governance and problem-solving.

It still seems surreal to imagine that, no matter how out of touch Lugar had become or was perceived to have become, he was ousted by a man whose most dangerous quality is his unabashed embrace of previously unthinkable positions. The most dangerous of these is his rejection of bipartisanship, the lifeblood of progress since the birth of this country.

There are three Senate office buildings in the place where Mourdock aspires to represent Indiana: Hart, Russell and Dirksen. The last is named in honor of Everett Dirksen, who was the Republican minority leader under LBJ. Dierksen was honored with a building largely because of his efforts to corral Republican votes for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when his party was in the minority and President Johnson was pushing the most expansive piece of legislation to date in the struggle for civil rights.

It seems we don’t do enough of that today. With a 10-1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases on the table, the more radical elements of Speaker Boehner’s caucus vetoed the measure.

A sad commentary on the state of political gridlock in Washington, the one reassuring fact was, until recently, that the fanaticism seemed to be contained to the House, the more irreverent of the two chambers by design and in practice.

The Senate was where serious men and women worked to become fluent in policy and took pride in their role as the sensible, deliberative, mature half of our federal legislature. Today, those dimensions seem more at risk of extinction than ever before.

Rep. Joe Donnelly, a Blue Dog conservative Democrat with a record of working across the aisle, is poised to fill Lugar’s position and continue his tradition of bipartisanship and principled centrism. Hoosiers should take time to get to know him, to examine his record of achievement in Washington, D.C., and to compare his temperament and outlook with those of his fiery opponent.

Whatever the cause of Lugar’s demise, it should not also spell the end of Indiana’s tradition of stable, reasoned representation in our nation’s capital.

I am left wondering whether we will heed Lugar’s warning, or if the days of naming buildings after our loyal opposition have been retired, as well.•

• Bonifield is a political science major at DePauw University and president of Hoosier Youth Advocacy, an organization focused on increasing youth participation in the Indiana General Assembly. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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