Lugar's independent streak can save mainstream Republicans

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Over his long career in politics, Dick Lugar has often displayed a streak of independence that is not always prized within the Republican Party.

During the early years of the Reagan administration, for example, the senator from Indiana -- then the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee -- took the lead in urging the United States to embrace the insurgent Corazon Aquino in the Philippines.

It proved to be the wisest policy, but Mr. Lugar's outspoken advocacy earned him a reputation, in the White House as a man "with his own agenda."

Not reliable

One of the results of Mr. Lugar's independence then was that he was ruled out by George Bush and his political advisers as a possibility for the vicepresidential nomination in 1988. He was not considered "reliable," so Mr. Bush opted instead for his lightweight colleague from Indiana, J. Danforth Quayle.

Although Senator Lugar did not complain publicly, those close to him made it clear he was disheartened.

The same kind of thinking is evident today in the muttering among Republican conservatives about Mr. Lugar's challenge to Sen. Jesse Helms on the William Weld nomination. They are saying that his challenge to Helms is largely a reflection of the resentment Mr. Lugar still feels from the time a decade ago when Mr. Helms invoked his seniority and took away the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Mr. Lugar has never made any secret of his feelings about that power play, although he insists he is perfectly happy presiding over the Agriculture Committee instead.

But it is ridiculous to imagine that Mr. Lugar's demand that Governor Weld be given a hearing is nothing more than a product of some personal pique.

Black eye

The political reality, which the Indiana Republican recognizes, is that both the Senate and the Republican Party are going to get a black eye if Senator Helms is allowed to deny even consideration to President Clinton's choice to be ambassador to Mexico. At a time when so many Americans are so cynical about government, the last thing either Congress or the party needs is more evidence that the system doesn't work.

This doesn't mean that Bill Weld is necessarily entitled to be ambassador. But it does mean that it is politically foolish to be seen as denying someone "a fair hearing" or "his day in court," which is the way Mr. Lugar is able to depict the arbitrary Helms decision.

Mr. Helms, of course, has a different set of political equities. He has always played to the Far Right, and that was enough for him to win reelection in North Carolina to another term last year. The fact that he was challenged by a black candidate, Harvey Gantt, in each of his last two elections, obviously had something to do with it.

But Mr. Helms and the cultural conservatives who support him most ardently are not the mainstream of the Republican Party. They are instead a significant minority wagging the dog on many issues such as abortion rights and homosexual rights, on which they see Mr. Weld as unacceptable.

Mr. Lugar is not presenting his support for a Weld hearing as a struggle for the soul of the Republican Party. Instead, he has been careful to couch it in terms of the way the Senate operates by noting pointedly that as chairman of Agriculture he could, if he chose, be just as arbitrary in dealing with issues important to Mr. Helms, most notably aid for tobacco farmers.

Wrong message

But even if he fails to move Jesse Helms, the clear message will be that a moderate Republican from the Northeast like Bill Weld cannot pass muster with the controlling conservatives. That is not a message the party wants to send to mainstream Republicans in the suburbs who deserted the party in significant numbers in 1996.

The betting, predictably, is that Mr. Lugar will fail. But he has made his point even while losing in the past. His campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 never got off the ground. He chose to emphasize some issues with little political volatility, such as nuclear terrorism and he never managed to evoke any widespread popular enthusiasm.

By the end of that campaign, however, Dick Lugar had earned a reputation as a decent and thoughtful candidate who appealed to the best in the voters.

Now he is showing those same qualities in trying to persuade his colleagues in the Senate to save themselves from the ridicule they will deserve if they allow Jesse Helms to make such a capricious decision and deny Bill Weld even a hearing.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 8/13/97

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