Without Lugar and Others, the Center Doesn't Hold
Policy + Politics

Without Lugar and Others, the Center Doesn't Hold

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Sen. Richard Lugar’s loss yesterday to a tea party challenger in the Indiana Republican primary will cost the Senate one of its most experienced and effective foreign policy hands. Lugar joins an already lengthy list of lawmakers with impressive institutional and technical knowledge who will be heading for the exit by the end of the year.

Few in either party can match Lugar’s breadth and depth in foreign policy and intelligence dating back to days as a young Naval officer during the Eisenhower Administration. He chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1985 to 1987 and from 2003 to 2007. His greatest achievement was the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat reduction program, which paid Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan to dismantle and destroy their nuclear weapons as well as some chemical and biological weapons.

For years, Lugar has lead Senate Republicans on foreign policy, shaping post-Cold War strategy, helping to impose sanctions to end apartheid in South Africa and pressing for democratic reforms in the Philippines. “I think the loss is considerable in foreign policy – that’s the area he has really marked out for serious engagement and where he’s made a difference,” said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar with the Brookings Institution. “He is genuinely informed on the complexities of national security policies, and has been a creative architect of and participant in some very constructive activity.”

His critics  say the 80-year-old  former Rhodes Scholar and Eagle Scout was well past his prime, spent too much time in Washington and probably should have retired this year before he was forced out by Richard E. Mourdock, the Indiana state treasurer and tea party adherent.

 Mourdock won with a solid majority, according to preliminary returns, and he now becomes the GOP candidate in a state where Republicans enjoy a built-in advantage. But his nomination also opens the door a crack to Rep. Joe Donnelly, a Democrat whose chances improve now that he doesn’t have to face the more moderate longtime incumbent.

 Mourdock’s campaign early on blasted Lugar for spending most of his time in Washington and for no longer owning a residence in Indiana. But his real indictment of Lugar was that he wasn’t conservative enough for the party any longer, although Lugar had a 77 percent lifetime rating by the American Conservative Union.

Mourdock and his supporters also didn’t like the idea that Lugar too often worked across party lines, as he did in supporting the bank bailouts and gun control, and backing President Obama’s nominees to the Supreme Court.   Mourdock tarnished him with the sobriquet of “President Obama’s favorite Republican.”

Shortly after the election results were announced, President Obama said in a statement, “As a friend and former colleague, I want to express my deep appreciation for Dick Lugar’s distinguished service in the United States Senate.  While Dick and I didn’t always agree on everything, I found during my time in the Senate that he was often willing to reach across the aisle and get things done. My administration’s efforts to secure the world’s most dangerous weapons has been based on the work that Senator Lugar began, as well as the bipartisan cooperation we forged during my first overseas trip as Senator to Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan.”

And so it goes in a year in which Congress is experiencing a major brain drain  of House and Senate members with the collective wisdom and experience of hundreds of years who are either retiring or seeking higher office.  More than two dozen Democratic and Republican House members are retiring or lost their primary contests, while another 15 are running for the Senate or some other office, according to a tally by  the newspaper Roll Call. Ten members of the Senate were retiring before yesterday’s cataclysmic primary results for Lugar.

Another big loss for Congress will be Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., the former chairman of the House Financial Services Committee who along with former senator Christopher Dodd, D-Conn.,  designed and pushed through the sweeping reforms of Wall Street and the banking industry. Frank, 72, who won his first term in 1980, is a savvy legislator and negotiator and high profile advocate for gay rights who ranks as one of the best debaters on Capitol Hill.

For years it was an article of faith that if there was an important bipartisan deal to be struck on Capitol Hill,  veteran Republican Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine would be in the mix. Throughout struggles to find common ground on issues ranging from campaign finance reform and health care to economic stimulus and intelligence, the willowy, amiable Snowe was invariably a major player.

Her announcement in late February that she was retiring after  more than three decades in Congress out of sheer frustration with the relentless, grinding partisanship on Capitol Hill was another sobering reminder that Congress has been rendered a political no-man’s land where compromise between  the two armed camps is a rare exception.
“As I have long said, what motivates me is producing results for those who have entrusted me to be their voice and their champion,” Snowe, 65, said in a statement that caught her staff and much of Washington by surprise. “I do find it frustrating, however, that an atmosphere of polarization and ‘my way or the highway’ ideologies have become pervasive in campaigns and in our governing institutions.

Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in 2000 who later broke with his party and backed Republican John McCain for president in 2008, announced in January that he would not seek a fifth term. Lieberman, 70, whose term is up in January 2013, has chosen to retire rather than face a difficult campaign for re-election.

Lieberman, an orthodox Jew, is a strong advocate of Israel and played a key role on homeland security as it developed after the 9/11 attacks. He initiated the call in Congress for creation of the Department of homeland Security in October 2011.

But Mr. Lieberman, as a senator, was best known for his centrist positions and outspokenness on issues of morality. In 1998, he publicly rebuked President Bill Clinton, calling his conduct in the Monica Lewinsky scandal “disgraceful,” drawing praise from members of both parties.

Others on their way out who will be taking inordinate amounts of institutional knowledge and experience include:

 Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., 64, a tireless advocate for fiscal discipline and long-term solution to the debt.
 Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., 71, an 18-term House member and one of the most knowledgeable members of the Appropriations Committee on defense issues.
 Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., 59, a 16-term House member and long time chairman of the Rules Committee who is a master of parliamentarian rules.
 Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., 68, an expert on public lands and environmental issues who has spent five terms in the Senate.
 Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., 77, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee and defense spending expert who spent 17 terms in the Congress.
 Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.), 70, the Republican whip who has spent 18 years in the Senate.

Mann, the congresssional expert,  said that with all the turnover  in recent years due in part to political dischord and the marginalization of members of the minority in both chambers,  there are fewer and fewer members still around who have spent decades in Congress, like Dicks, Dreier, Lewis and others.

Mann said that in the highly politicized and polarized world of government service, within both the executive branch and on Capitol Hill, “It’s going to be difficult to find successors in both branches that will make the kind of commitments to learning, to appreciate the institution of which they are part.”

“I just don’t see much of that around anymore,” he said.