BONIFIELD: Lugar loses a partisan Democrat admirer

March 17, 2012

Jake BonifieldI vote in Democratic primaries, work for progressive candidates, and intern for left-leaning elected officials. And, until last summer, I was planning to vote for Sen. Lugar.

Recently, when asked by a political science professor who in our class agreed with their party more than 50 percent of the time, only a handful of us raised our hands. The question got me thinking: What does it means to be a partisan, and does the label itself imply an abdication of reason?

Independents—the vaunted prize in general elections—certainly serve a purpose in tempering the hard-line tendencies of primary electorates. Casual observers are quick to offer that the center of the political spectrum is one of the last remaining enclaves of rationality in American politics.

Though I do not subscribe to this sort of dogmatic centrism, particularly because the simplistic notion that the correct decision is precisely in between the ideological poles tends to magnify the impact of fringe groups, the trend of voter disillusionment with partisan bickering is hard to ignore.

Which is why Lugar’s recent decisions are so puzzling. A name as synonymous with Hoosier politics and values as any in recent memory, Lugar has long championed the sort of reasonable conservatism that even partisan Democrats like me could get behind. Like Evan Bayh and his father before him, Lugar has represented Indiana in the Senate as a moderate, anchored against political tides by his record of courageous stances and policy know-how.

That is until Richard Mourdock and the Tea Party tidal wave shook the 79-year-old’s confidence. Now, Lugar’s “seasoned” campaign is running scared against a political infant. Every year, Club for Growth—Chris Chocola’s right-wing interest group—publishes its ranking of senators, measuring their conservative bona fides by how often they towed the party line in the previous year. In 2010, Lugar had a rating of 65, meaning he had voted with party leaders 65 percent of the time. A respectable, conservative record.

Mourdock, with little money, lacking in name recognition as he sought to unseat the six-term senator, seized on this statistic and highlighted select votes in which Lugar broke with his party to support common-sense legislation like nuclear non-proliferation, the repeal of don’t-ask-don’t-tell, and the Dream Act.

Here was Lugar’s chance to traverse the state he loves and knows, lecturing on the perils of fanaticism, a revered veteran teaching an angry insurgent how the game is really played. Instead, he flinched.

His voting pattern changed dramatically, his 2011 Club for Growth figure spiking to 80 in the same year in which he had dropped his co-sponsorship of the Dream Act and sharpened his rhetoric against President Obama on everything from intervention in Libya to the economy. He has also gone negative against his opponent for the first time since he first ran for Senate.

Lugar was no longer the beloved elder statesman but instead a partisan flame-thrower, all because the state treasurer with a ragtag band of loyalists was challenging him in his seventh primary?

Perfect centrism, like perfect neutrality, is not what we should demand from our lawmakers. Principled legislators make decisions with which any number of people will disagree on a fairly regular basis, regardless of party affiliation. It is blatant hypocrisy and fluidity of conscience that should be the enemy of every voter, not just those in the so-called middle.

I will not be voting for Lugar in November as a repudiation of Lugar’s cowardice. Fringe movements gain legitimacy when reasonable leaders go beyond acknowledging their existence and begin pandering to their demands, no matter how absurd. As a political strategy, it is nonsensical.

Tea Partiers are not likely to embrace Lugar in the primary, and he has sacrificed votes like mine in the general.

More devastating, however, is the thought that a well-earned reputation for middle-of-the-road legislating is being so carelessly tarnished. Lugar may win in May and perhaps again in November, but in doing so he will have forfeited a portion of his legacy that ought to have been preserved above all else.•


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.comhttp://ibjedit@ibj.com.


Recent Articles by Jake Bonifield / Special to IBJ

Comments powered by Disqus