Dick Lugar: The perils of bipartisanship

He’s the longest-serving senator in Indiana’s history, the Senate’s senior Republican and third most senior senator, a two-time chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee widely recognized as one of the most influential voices on American foreign policy, especially arms control and nuclear disarmament.

And if Republicans win control of the Senate in November, he would likely become president pro-tem and third in line of presidential succession.

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But that assumes that Dick Lugar can win Indiana’s May 8 GOP primary in the face of a conservative backlash that threatens to end his 36-year Senate career. The reasons why a Hoosier icon with impressive credentials in Washington and around the world has become one of the Senate’s endangered incumbents are spelled out in Richard G. Lugar, Statesman of the Senate, this workmanlike book that highlights both his strengths and weaknesses.

Unfortunately for Lugar, as the book makes clear, his greatest strength as a legislator — the ability to achieve bipartisan consensus on a host of controversial issues that many of his GOP colleagues oppose — might also prove to be his greatest weakness as he seeks a sixth term at a time when bipartisanship has become a dirty word with many Republican voters.

“A conciliator by nature, Lugar knows that in the modern Senate almost nothing gets done unless there are 60 votes,” writes author John Shaw. “This underscores the necessity of broad-based bipartisan support, and over the years, Lugar has developed important and intriguing partnerships with Democrats.

“But Lugar’s penchant for bipartisanship has made his position in the Republican Party more complex. Many of his younger, more aggressively conservative colleagues view bipartisan collaboration as a sellout. They see Lugar’s conciliatory approach as a weakness, not a strength.”

Indeed, Lugar has given his critics, including his primary opponent, Tea Party-backed State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, ample reason to question his Republican bona fides. “He is a conservative Republican who breaks from prevailing party views in such areas as environmental protection, conservation, federal nutrition programs, international law, global institutions such as the United Nations, aggressive HIV/AIDS programs, robust diplomacy and general foreign aid,” Shaw notes.

Shaw, a veteran congressional observer who spent five years closely watching Lugar and was granted complete access to him and his staff, bills his book not as a biography “but rather a case study of how Lugar has influenced U.S. foreign policy from his position in the Senate.”

As a result, he focuses on Lugar’s considerable achievements in that area, including his key role in Senate ratification of treaties to reduce the production and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction, and the landmark Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program that has deactivated more than 7,500 U.S. and Soviet nuclear warheads since 1991.

In language that echoes the book’s subtitle, Shaw writes that Lugar “also has a broader conception of the role of the senator as a kind of statesman who undertakes long-term projects for the national good, even if they have few short-term benefits.”

All this is well and good in the clubby world of the Senate and international diplomacy circles, but Lugar might find few short-term political benefits back in Indiana’s polling booths, where Tea Party activists and other conservative Republicans pass judgment on his willingness to support his former Senate colleagues, President Obama and Vice President Biden.

Lugar’s age — he’ll be 80 next month — and the fact he’s become Obama’s favorite senator, just as he was Richard Nixon’s favorite mayor while mayor of Indianapolis, could also work against him. The latest sign of Lugar’s vulnerability came Saturday when Mourdock won 88 percent of a straw vote among GOP precinct committee members in Muncie.

Mourdock charged that Lugar, who hasn’t owned a home in Indiana since 1977, “is out of touch” with Hoosier voters.

While this book offers an overwhelmingly favorable assessment of Lugar and his accomplishments, which is no doubt why he cooperated with the author, it also highlights what many colleagues and critics consider a critical shortcoming.

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who served with Lugar for two terms, is among those who think Lugar should have been more forceful in challenging President George W.

Bush on his Iraq war policy. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, told the author he pleaded with Lugar to stop the Bush administration from launching its attack on Iraq in 2003.

Lugar may have hoped that a book portraying him as “statesman of the Senate” would help him win a sixth term, but it could have the same effect a pileup on the Indianapolis 500 has on the pre-race favorite.