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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Eating Their Own


The Decline and Fall of the Moderate

Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana certainly ranks as one of the most significant politicians to ever hail from Hoosierland. He’s the ranking member and former chairman of the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee and has been elected six times to the Senate. Lugar is as close as the Senate has to a respected senior statesman on the issue of how we control weapons of mass destruction. Democrats respect and often follow him on those issues. Under normal circumstances, Luger ought to have a lock on re-election. He doesn’t.

In a Politico profile of Lugar and his re-election, reporter Jonathan Allen says the 36-year Senate veteran is catching it from the left and right for being out of touch with Indiana. Lugar’s very conservative GOP primary opponent, for example, has been hitting him for not owning a home in Indiana and for having the independence to vote for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees.

Allen writes, “this race is an epilogue to a 2010 election in which anti-establishment Republicans knocked off sitting senators and party favorites, and in several cases gave Democrats a shot to win seats that had seemed out of reach.”

If Lugar survives the Republican primary in Indiana he may have a serious Democratic opponent, but Lugar is likely to hold the seat. If he’s knocked off, as relative moderates like Mike Castle in Delaware and Robert Bennett in Utah were two years ago, Democrats may have a rare chance to pick up a seat where Republicans dominate. The reason is pretty simple: Republicans – nationally and closer to home – are culling the GOP herd of anyone who even appears to be a moderate.

In Idaho, two of the few remaining “moderate” Republicans in the Idaho House – Leon Smith and Tom Trail – aren’t running for re-election this year. Both have watched the party move steadily to the far right with more moderate Republicans pushed to the sidelines. In Idaho the moderate Republican in elective office has become almost as rare as a Democrat…or a native sockeye salmon.

More than the home he doesn’t own in Indiana or his long tenure in the Senate, Dick Lugar is trying to survive in a national Republican Party that is redefining itself out of the mainstream of American political life, which is why it’s worth watching how Texas Congressman Ron Paul is playing the game during the presidential primary season.

Ron Paul doesn’t have a prayer of winning the GOP presidential nomination, but he does stand a good chance of helping define what it will mean going forward to be a conservative and a Republican. It certainly doesn’t mean being in the middle on anything.

The National Journal recently did its analysis of Senate voting records and concluded – again – that the most conservative Democrat in the Senate has a voting record that is more liberal than the most liberal Republican. This ideological divide has happened only three times in the last 30 years, but has now happened twice in the last two years.

National Journal declared that, “Ideological mavericks are an extinct breed. The otherwise iconoclastic Tom Coburn of Oklahoma had the most conservative voting record in the Senate (Democrats Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York were tied for the most liberal), and the old fighter jock himself, John McCain of Arizona, voted more to the right than two-thirds of his GOP colleagues.”

The House of Representatives is every bit as ideologically divided as the Senate, but it wasn’t always so.

The National Journal piece notes that not that long ago, conservative southern Democrats joined with Republicans to influence national policy across the board. And there is this great quote from former Rep. John Byrnes of Wisconsin, a Republican on the Democratically controlled Ways and Means Committee in the 1960’s. 

“It was a pleasant operation. You weren’t constantly fighting on philosophical or other grounds and issues,” Byrnes said in an oral history. “You were trying to look for ways where we could compromise differences and move along [legislation].… It was part of the thing that made life worthwhile and interesting. You knew that you did leave some kind of an imprint, because any idea that finally developed into a consensus, you knew that you were part of that process.”

But, back to Ron Paul. He wants, as South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint also recently called for, a final showdown between conservative Republicans and Paul’s brand of libertarian Republicans with the winner defining the modern Republican Party. If Paul ends the primary season controlling enough delegates, and he just might, he can force votes at the GOP convention over his ideas for reforming (or eliminating) the Federal Reserve, a more isolationist foreign policy or putting the country on the gold standard. Paul’s aim, and why he won’t bolt and run on a third party line in November, is to remake the GOP into his vision of what a conservative party looks like.

Meanwhile, at the grassroots in Indiana, Dick Lugar is getting killed. A straw poll over the weekend found him getting eight votes out of 69 in a contest with his Republican challenger.

The GOP moderate really is disappearing with this heart and soul fight between the traditional Chamber of Commerce Republicans and the conservatives who find Mitt Romney too squishy on many issues. Will Democrats, also not averse to eating their own, be smart enough to capitalize? There is, after all, a lot of room for the party from just right of center to where Sen. Bernie Sanders sits.

Tomorrow…some reflections on Senators who survived the kind of challenge Lugar is getting and some who didn’t.

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