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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Old Lessons


Where’s the Puppy?

Harry Truman famously said, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.” I’ll offer the Johnson Corollary to Truman’s great one liner: “in politics, it is almost always your friends who cause you trouble.”

Most every politician I have known has a very good idea from which direction the partisan opposition will attack. It’s the onslaught from friends that is harder to anticipate and even more difficult to combat.

From Idaho to Indiana today, the Republican Party is in full revolt against itself and the soldiers in this war of the friends – faintly moderate Republicans battling really, really conservative Republicans – are in full battle gear.

The most recent purge of the “moderates” claimed its latest victim yesterday when 36-year Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar lost by 20 points in a GOP primary. Lugar, 80-years old, and portrayed as a squishy bipartisan moderate, was retired by the same type of voter who will next week take the Idaho GOP in an ever more rightward direction.

Lugar’s loss, like every losing campaign, turned on many factors. First, he may well have succumbed to the fatal illness that eventually catches many politicians; the voters just got sick of him. But, it’s also undeniable that The Club for Growth and other very conservative groups targeted the one-time chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee for being one of the few in the Senate, on either side, willing to cross the aisle and work a deal. Lugar had the partisan misfortune of working with the president on arms issues and actually voting for two Obama Supreme Court appointees. Not good when your friends think such behavior is the political equivalent of sitting down for dinner with the Taliban.

In a remarkable statement released last night, Lugar neatly summed up what he – and more and more Republicans – are facing right now.

 “Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum are dominating the political debate in our country,” Lugar said. “And 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. If that attitude prevails in American politics, our government will remain mired in the dysfunction we have witnessed during the last several years.”

Closer to home, some Idaho Republicans are spending freely in an effort to shift their party further right. The combination of the new “closed” GOP primary, well-funded PAC’s targeting slightly more moderate incumbents and old intraparty feuds guarantee that Republicans, who have been almost completely successful over the last two decades in Idaho, will be deeply divided after the May 15th primary among the mere conservatives and the ultras. The headline in The Idaho Statesman today said it all: “Idaho House Leaders Attempt Fratricide”

Reporter Dan Popkey details the efforts by senior Republican leaders to target their own in primaries, prompting the state’s chief election officer, Secretary of State Ben Ysura, to observe: “This is groundbreaking, the open split in the leadership and money being spent against one of their own.”

Of course, Republicans have no lock on this type of “kill your friends” behavior. To disastrous effect, Franklin Roosevelt tried to “purge” conservatives from the Democratic Party in 1938. FDR, a generally brilliant political analyst, misread the country and created divisions within his party that lasted a generation. And, of course, Ted Kennedy helped contribute to Jimmy Carter’s defeat in 1980 with an ill-considered primary challenge against an incumbent president. Lyndon Johnson’s blood feud with Bobby Kennedy – the two most prominent Democrats in the country hated each other – is well-documented in Robert Caro’s new biography of LBJ.

Perhaps the truly remarkable feature of many of these intraparty feuds – fratricide is a good word for it – is that they happen at precisely the moment when a party has the most to gain by throwing up the biggest possible tent.

In 1938, Roosevelt had huge majorities in both houses of Congress. After his failed purge, he never passed another significant piece of domestic legislation. In 1980, national Democrats faced an energized effort, new at the time at least on such a scale, to target a number of their incumbents with independent expenditure campaigns. At the very moment the party needed unity rather than warfare, it opted for warfare and lost – big. Can you say President Reagan?

National Republicans in 2012 have an historic opportunity during a time of economic distress to turn out a weak incumbent, consolidate their hold on the House and capture the Senate. Lugar’s demise in Indiana, at the least, make that last objective more difficult, since a centrist Democrat in Hoosierlandwill now likely have an easier time witha Tea Party type than he would have had with Lugar.

In Idaho, you have to wonder if all this intraparty battling among Republicans is causing them to flirt dangerously with mucking up their own decades-long success. History may have a lesson on point. In 1966, conservatives in the Idaho GOP purged three-term incumbent Republican Gov. Robert E. Smylie on grounds that he was too moderate and had grown too big for the britches of his blue suits. Smylie’s replacement as governor was very conservative and a favorite of the Goldwater wing of the GOP.

Four years later, a 39-year old lumberjack from Orofino, Cecil D. Andrus, beat the very conservative and not terribly capable Gov. Don Samuelson. That 1970 election set off a 24-year run where Democrats never moved out of the Idaho Governor’s Office.

As that ol’ lumberjack is fond of saying, “don’t say anything bad about ol’ Don Samuelson. If there hadn’t been a Don Samuelson there would never have been a Cecil Andrus.”

Purges can have some of the most unintended consequences.

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