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The tea party's war on common sense

Tea party advocates in Indiana are congratulating themselves on the Republican primary victory of one of their own, Richard Mourdock, over six-term Senate veteran Richard Lugar. But the rest of the country should be mourning the departure of the epitome of what Washington needs much more of: conscientious bipartisanship.

The 80-year-old Mr. Lugar is being kicked out in part because of his age, his alleged failure to keep a real residence in Indiana, and his penchant for putting common sense and national security ahead of party labels. Inadvertently, his defeat may give the Democrats a chance to pick up a seat in November that could spoil the Republicans' hopes to win control of the Senate.

But more significant in terms of good governance, Mr. Lugar's defeat will deprive Congress and the Republican Party of one of the last remaining GOP legislators who once made Capitol Hill a place where bipartisanship could get things done. He has been the embodiment of the old Gerald Ford comment that he had "adversaries but no enemies," a notion that seems laughable today.

In his nearly 36 years in the Senate, Mr. Lugar had managed in spite of adherence to that notion to compile a solid conservative voting record. He parted with his Republican colleagues only when the merits of legislation dictated it, and particularly concerning national security.

Lugar's greatest achievement was his bipartisan work with then-Sen. Sam Nunn, a Georgia Democrat, in enacting the Nuclear Proliferation and Threat Reduction program in 1991. It was extended in 2007 with Mr. Lugar and then-Sen. Barack Obama as principal authors. It is credited with overseeing the dismantling of 7,500 nuclear weapons around the world.

Mr. Lugar sought to bring greater prominence to harnessing nuclear weapons after the Cold War by making it the centerpiece of a short-lived bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996. He ran a well-reasoned campaign with a strong television ad on the threat of loose nukes, but his own low-key style and persona never connected with voters outside Indiana.

There, however, he was a phenomenal vote-getter until this year's Senate primary campaign. In four previous re-elections, he had won with more than two-thirds of the vote, and in 2007 he had gained 87 percent support. But that was before the rise of the tea party movement in Indiana, and before he sold his home and moved to a hotel during his visits to the state, enabling critics to cast him as a neglectful outsider. He finally reregistered as residing at his family's 600-acre farm in Marion County.

Mr. Lugar himself cited his votes over the last six years as what enabled the tea party to defeat him. He listed his support for the auto industry bailout, approval of a new START arms control treaty with the Russians, his votes for the two most recent Obama nominees to the Supreme Court, and backing a version of legislation providing for a path to citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants.

Mr. Lugar first won national attention as mayor of Indianapolis, where he was dubbed then President Richard Nixon's "favorite mayor," for encouraging shifting to the cities certain federal powers to deal with urban problems. He lost his first bid for the Senate to incumbent Democrat Birch Bayh in 1974 but two years later beat the other Democratic incumbent, Vance Hartke, and has held the seat ever since.

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1985 to 1987 and from 2003 to 2007, and currently as its ranking minority member, Mr. Lugar has been one of the Senate's most influential defenders of a strong national defense. But his willingness to work with Democrats, including Mr. Obama on the proliferation issue in the Senate, drew sharp partisan criticism from Mr. Mourdock.

Analyzing his own defeat, Mr. Lugar said his opponent's "embrace of an unrelenting partisanship mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results" in the Senate. He said Mr. Mourdock's "rejectionist orthodoxy and rigidity" against whatever the Democrats propose did not bode well for getting any constructive work done. Nor does the loss of the earnest Dick Lugar after a lifetime of reaching out to the other side.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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