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Why Dick Lugar was turned out

By Matt Welch, Special to CNN
updated 12:39 PM EDT, Thu May 10, 2012
Sen. Richard Lugar, who lost his primary challenge Tuesday to Richard Mourdock.
Sen. Richard Lugar, who lost his primary challenge Tuesday to Richard Mourdock.
  • Matt Welch says Sen. Lugar's defeat is cast by media, others as a rout of moderate politics
  • He asks: If voters don't like his support of policies they disagree with, how else to respond?
  • He says Lugar's "moderation" contributed to bailouts, stimulus, worsening economy
  • Welch: Don't shed tear for long-serving senators, hold politicians accountable by voting

Editor's note: Matt Welch is editor-in-chief of Reason and co-author of "The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America (PublicAffairs)."

(CNN) -- Chances are that most of you reading this are opposed to at least some of the following federal laws and policies: the Troubled Assets Relief Program, the auto bailout, the serial raising of the debt ceiling, the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, marijuana prohibition, systematic increases in the Department of Education budget, Medicare Part D, sugar subsidies, obstacles to gay marriage, the nationalization of the mortgage industry and the infuriating performance (or even existence) of the Transportation Security Administration.

Some of you may even consider one of these controversial policies your single most important political issue.

So here's a real question, in the wake of Sen. Richard Lugar's convincing Republican primary defeat Tuesday at the hands of tea party favorite Richard E. Mourdock, an event broadly panned in the media as a bellwether for ideological extremism: How, exactly, is a citizen motivated by strong opposition to one or more of the policies above supposed to influence politics?

Matt Welch
Matt Welch

I count four basic ways, though there are certainly more: 1) Use the political process outside two-party politics; i.e., try to propose and support ballot initiatives that sidestep political roadblocks on your issue of choice; 2) Stay outside of practical politics altogether and try to influence the debate through commentary; 3) Stay on the reservation of one of the two major political parties and hope to eventually persuade the leaders of your team to change their minds; and 4) occasionally challenge stick-in-the-mud politicians from your own party in primary elections.

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For many (though by no means all) tea party activists and limited-government enthusiasts who have sporadically chosen Door No. 4, the Troubled Assets Relief Program and the subsequent bipartisan orgy of bailouts and stimuli are deal-breakers. (Lugar voted for TARP and the auto bailout, against the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and in favor of two smaller stimulus packages.) They are seen, rightly or wrongly (I'd vote rightly) as having made a bad economy worse, giving government troubling new powers and ballooning national debt to the verge of an unprecedented fiscal crisis, all while failing to address the still-untouched underlying causes of the mortgage meltdown.

Sen. Lugar: Expect more partisanship
Lugar: My service isn't concluded
Mourdock won't compromise principles

Such tactical use of primarying is creating a growing but still statistically outnumbered group of politicians within the Republican tent who for the first time in a free-spending generation take seriously the notion of forcing the government to live within its fiscal and constitutional means. Sens. Rand Paul and Mike Lee are not the same breed of big-government Republican -- including on civil-liberties issues -- who so mismanaged the nation's affairs under President George W. Bush. For that we have same-team political competition to thank.

Or condemn, it turns out.

New York Times columnist Andrew Rosenthal called Lugar's defeat a manifestation of "intolerance" on par with criminalizing same-sex marriage. New York magazine pontificator Jonathan Chait deemed it "a seminal event because he is such a long-standing and esteemed member of the Senate, and his deviations were so tiny."

News: Lugar's loss further polarizes U.S. Senate

Even straight news articles portrayed Lugar's defeat as the victory of ideological intolerance over successful and patriotic moderation. The New York Times emphasized in its lead paragraph that the six-term senator was "a collegial moderate who personified a gentler political era." The Associated Press stated that "Lugar's willingness to compromise and to broker deals — qualities that made him an effective statesman and senator for nearly 36 years — had become a liability among some Indiana Republicans, who have turned to a new, more socially conservative generation of leaders."

Lugar added fuel to these characterizations in a bitter concession statement:

"Unfortunately, we have an increasing number of legislators in both parties who have adopted an unrelenting partisan viewpoint," he said. "Partisan groups, including outside groups that spent millions against me in this race, are determined to see that this continues. They have worked to make it as difficult as possible for a legislator of either party to hold independent views or engage in constructive compromise. ... Ideology cannot be a substitute for a determination to think for yourself, for a willingness to study an issue objectively and for the fortitude to sometimes disagree with your party or even your constituents."

The press, as ever, is a sucker for such country-over-party, pragmatism-over-ideology rhetoric. As the Charlotte Observer editorialized, "It's dispiriting for those who believe ... America need[s] solutions-oriented leaders, not dogmatic crusaders, as much as ever."

But what you never see in these types of laments is even a hint that pragmatic, bipartisan problem-solving can be just as ideological, if not more, than principled opposition to it.

Think back to the laundry list of bipartisan policies at the top of this column. How many of those were enacted in the name of just getting something, anything done in the face of a crisis? In September 2008, during the height of the financial panic, problem-solving, centrist poster boy Michael Bloomberg said "Nobody knows exactly what they should do, but anything is better than nothing." Hel-lo, TARP!

Similar blank-check recklessness accompanied many of the worst bits of modern legislation. If it's "ideological" to always prefer saying "no" to government intervention, why isn't it ideological to always say "yes"?

I have no illusions about Richard Mourdock being the next great senator, though I'm always happy to be surprised. Fiscal conservatism was part of his pitch, but so was a slew of good ol' fashioned Obama-hatin', which doesn't necessarily augur well for his future as a thoughtful legislator.

But I won't be shedding tears for any senator who has been in office since "Frampton Comes Alive" was No. 1, who had not faced a tough primary since winning office, and who wasn't even opposed by a Democrat six years ago. From where I sit, power still corrupts, and competition (especially of the political sort) is always a good thing.

What I'd like to see more from Democrats is less condemnation of the tactic and more emulation. Who will be the first sitting Democratic senator tossed out in a primary election for supporting the drug war, Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, warrantless wiretapping and every new military intervention under the sun? And when that day of competition comes, will it, too, be dismissed as ideological extremism?

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matt Welch.

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