I have to admit, I’m hardly bowled over by Dick Lugar’s wannabe kissoff concession statement. The story of Lugar’s primary challenge gathered considerable media interest, and his statement indicates that he was aware of this, and wrote something to get attention. But just like what Olympia Snowe said when she dropped out, Lugar just endorsed the company line and didn’t add any new frame or angle to the ongoing discussion:

Unfortunately, we have an increasing number of legislators in both parties who have adopted an unrelenting partisan viewpoint. This shows up in countless vote studies that find diminishing intersections between Democrat and Republican positions. Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum are dominating the political debate in our country. And partisan groups, including outside groups that spent millions against me in this race, are determined to see that this continues. They have worked to make it as difficult as possible for a legislator of either party to hold independent views or engage in constructive compromise. If that attitude prevails in American politics, our government will remain mired in the dysfunction we have witnessed during the last several years. And I believe that if this attitude expands in the Republican Party, we will be relegated to minority status. Parties don’t succeed for long if they stop appealing to voters who may disagree with them on some issues. […]

Too often bipartisanship is equated with centrism or deal cutting. Bipartisanship is not the opposite of principle. One can be very conservative or very liberal and still have a bipartisan mindset. Such a mindset acknowledges that the other party is also patriotic and may have some good ideas. It acknowledges that national unity is important, and that aggressive partisanship deepens cynicism, sharpens political vendettas, and depletes the national reserve of good will that is critical to our survival in hard times. Certainly this was understood by President Reagan, who worked with Democrats frequently and showed flexibility that would be ridiculed today — from assenting to tax increases in the 1983 Social Security fix, to compromising on landmark tax reform legislation in 1986, to advancing arms control agreements in his second term.

I don’t remember a time when so many topics have become politically unmentionable in one party or the other. Republicans cannot admit to any nuance in policy on climate change. Republican members are now expected to take pledges against any tax increases. For two consecutive Presidential nomination cycles, GOP candidates competed with one another to express the most strident anti-immigration view, even at the risk of alienating a huge voting bloc. Similarly, most Democrats are constrained when talking about such issues as entitlement cuts, tort reform, and trade agreements. Our political system is losing its ability to even explore alternatives. If fealty to these pledges continues to expand, legislators may pledge their way into irrelevance. Voters will be electing a slate of inflexible positions rather than a leader.

This is more thoughtful than most bipartisan boosterism (though his take on Democrats has at least two of three facts wrong). Other than that, Lugar’s statement is relentlessly thoughtful, and shows if nothing else, that Dick Lugar actually treats politics as something worthy of thought and examination, which is different from  the quasi-religious dogma that the right (and the bipartisan-fetishist center) ever do. But the statement is exactly the sort of thing that you would expect someone like Lugar to make, it’s exactly what the Beltway wants to hear and what they expect, and it will be forgotten within days. The anger on display is unexpected, but the sentiments are not.

Why will this fade? Because even now, when the last election has been lost, Dick Lugar simply cannot simply criticize the polarizing effects of the Tea Party on his party. He trots out the “Both sides do it” complaint, which saps the indictment of any power. It’s much like how a mainstream sketch show–a SNL or a MadTV–will often cover a political debate, by studiously avoiding taking a viewpoint and just making fun of all sides, with the implication that the whole thing’s all a joke. It doesn’t necessarily make it unfunny, but it does make it fairly pointless as a persuasive tool. Admittedly, those shows have no interest in persuading so much as entertaining with topical humor. Political speeches, especially ones like this, are meant to persuade. Lugar could have taken this opportunity to lacerate the Tea Party for driving the GOP to the right, taking down public servants whose only crime is the occasional independent thought, whose only failing is the notion that people elected to Congress might occasionally work to solve problems rather than to continually proclaim the virtues of some ideology that, if history is any guide, will stand for a completely different set of positions in four years. That’s clearly where Lugar wants to go, but he’s ever the loyal GOP soldier to the end, carefully avoiding any direct hits on his party even if that’s what they need in the long run.

Perhaps Lugar doesn’t see it that way. Perhaps he really does think a lack of centrism is the problem. And the centrist complex has recently seen this little false equivalence of theirs get a life of its own after two Blue Dogs lost in Pennsylvania last month to more liberal challengers. John Avlon–who generally comes off as sort of a grown-up Conor Friersdorf in most of what he writes, e.g. his utter naivete on partisan politics–specifically referred to RINO- and DINO-hunters as being equally prevalent. But the facts are different in these cases. Holden and Altmire were redistricted into unfamiliar territory that was less Republican-leaning than where they’d previously represented, and ran against Democrats who were better ideologically suited to this new territory. Tim Holden served for years as a Blue Dog without anyone laying a glove on him from the left. Really, their losses were accidents* of redistricting. Democrats very rarely face primary challenges for ideological impurity, the only one I can think of in recent years is Al Wynn of Maryland, who in 2008 lost a primary to the more progressive Donna Edwards. For Republicans, though, it has become de rigeur. The effect has been to scare Republicans out of bucking the party line, ever. Seems as though this would be useful information for, I don’t know, Massachusetts voters deciding on whether Scott Brown will truly be independent of his party if given a full term, or for any of the competitive Senate races out there, like Missouri, Nevada, et al. I do not think the public has really grasped this, in large part because everyone is so quick to blame both parties for inaction. Lugar is a Republican and I don’t expect him to work for Democratic victories in November. But by pulling his punches like he did, he ensured that his thoughtful statement will be as ephemeral as can be, that nothing will really change, and it’s even counterproductive since it blurs responsibility for this phenomenon in a way that helps the very people doing the polarizing. This ain’t Eisenhower taking his farewell speech to tell a tough, essential truth.  Lugar’s final speech isn’t even a rally to action of any kind, it’s merely a self-pitying moan. Remember this through  all this talk of his great statesmanship.

*But not really, since this was exactly what Pennsylvania Republicans wanted when they drew the new district lines.


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