By Peggy Noonan
Washington needs seasoned statesmen, especially at a time of national crisis.
The most recent polls suggest Dick Lugar, the senior U.S. senator from Indiana, first elected in 1976, is on track to lose his primary on Tuesday. I hope he doesn’t for a number of reasons but one big one: the Senate needs grown-ups. The entire American government needs grown-ups, from Capitol Hill to the White House to the executive agencies. This is no time to lose one.
What Washington needs is sober and responsible adults. We are as a nation in a moment of real peril, facing challenges that are going to become existential—maybe already are—if we don’t do something about them. We won’t be able to ignore them—an unsound tax system, increasing and highly ideological regulation, an entitlement system whose demands will crush our children—for long. So right now, and more than ever, we need mature folk involved in our governance, people for whom not everything is new. People who know how to do things, who began studying a complicated issue 25 years ago and have kept up, who know it backward and forward. People who know the ways of the chamber backward and forward, and who know how to talk across the aisle. There is value in experience, in accomplishment and expertise. There is value in the ability to take the long view, and do your best with modesty and with an eye toward all the big jumbly categories of America, which are not limited to “rightist” and “leftist.”
Mr. Lugar, ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee and a longtime leader on controlling nuclear proliferation, is a sober and genial fellow. He is a conservative, always has been. He is experiencing a challenge from the right. He’s been under fire, for instance, for voting for the confirmation of Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. As a matter of form, policy and tradition he did the right thing. He also helped shepherd through the nomination of John Roberts as chief Justice. He did the right thing there, too. He firmly backed President Bush on Iraq until he came to have doubts about administration policy and execution, and when he’d thought it through he took to the floor of the senate to explain his thinking, and his break.
He is independent. That’s good, a plus: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment,” as Edmund Burke observed. Mr. Lugar has won the respect of Senate Democrats. That’s good, too. In the future, it may turn out at some moment to be crucial.
The general position of respect he holds in Washington is not new. I remember, in 1988, working for George H.W. Bush, who had just won his party’s nomination for the presidency. The Bush entourage was on Air Force Two, en route to Indiana, to celebrate the nominee for vice president, Dan Quayle. Mr. Quayle was a nice man and a capable politician, but he was young. He sat, in the vice president’s office on the plane, with Indiana’s other senator, Dick Lugar, grey even then. I remember looking from one to another and thinking, “Why him?” Why Quayle and not Lugar, so known and respected? I was not the only person thinking that, on the plane or in the press.
Mr. Lugar’s challenger, state treasurer Richard Mourdock, has mounted a tough and determined campaign. He is drawing the endorsements of what is, increasingly, the conservative establishment: FreedomWorks, the Club for Growth, Americans for Tax Reform. Sarah Palin supports him, as does Michele Bachmann.
Mr. Lugar seems to have only one bigfoot, Gov. Mitch Daniels, a man of sound, unshowy judgement whose presence in the presidential primaries would have left them less freaky and more satisfying.
If Mr. Lugar loses, the press will say the tea party did him in, that it’s all part of an “ideological purge,” it was the extremists versus the GOP establishment and the extremists won. This will be a partial misreading of the situation, but it will be repeated enough to damage the Republican brand, such as it is. In any case, if Mr. Lugar loses the enemies of the GOP will rejoice, because while it’s assumed that he would sail through a general election, Mr. Mourdock might struggle.
As for “the tea party,” it is good to remember it has blended into the Republican Party, as more or less its rightward edge, and in the blending saved the party. Republicans would have been nowhere if what’s called the tea party had gone third-party.
If Mr. Lugar loses on Tuesday it will likely be due to two things. The first is a number: 35. That’s how many years he’s been in the Senate, how many years he’s lived and worked primarily in the environs of Washington, not Indiana, where apparently he no longer has a home. That was a mistake. Thirty-five is a big number. Nonideological people might look at it and think, “It’s time for a change.”
The other reason is a fact. What fuels conservative frustration is not only legislation like ObamaCare and scandals like Solyndra, but a growing sense that for 40 years, members of the party have sent Republicans to Washington and Washington—its spending, its regulating, its demands—keeps getting worse, not better. How could this be? It’s not just that Democrats have their Democratic ways, it’s that the Republicans they’ve sent haven’t waged a good enough fight. Everything bad there happened while they were there. So—tear it all down, remove everyone and start over.
This is a hard argument to counter because there is some truth in it. No matter who you send, Washington keeps growing. But Mr. Lugar remains as what he is, exceptional, and in his case there are many factors. He’s fought many fights to keep bad policy from being imposed. (Unfortunately, there’s never a memorial to the bad bill that didn’t happen.) He’s waded into serious policy issues, such as disarmament, that get little credit but are crucial. And in a practical sense, conservatives might note that the senior senator from Indiana has just had the scare of his political life. He’s never been primaried before. It is likely that he will return to Washington, if he’s allowed to return, newly alive to certain conservative needs and concerns. There, he will be able to take what might be called a refreshed sense of where people are, combine it with a veteran’s knowledge of how to move things forward, and help make the kind of progress conservatives long for.
Does all this reflect a bias toward stability, toward those who know how to lead and compromise and find agreement, at a time when Washington seems increasingly immature, feckless, unaware of urgency?
Yes, I do declare that bias. In Washington now very few have their eye on the big picture. Mr. Lugar does, and should not be lost.
Mark Peters of this paper wrote a smart piece this week noting that the primary is an open one, and the race may come down to the independent vote.
They should save the old guy. He has value.
this op-ed appeared on WSJ on 5/3/12