The Last RINO

To the modern Republican Party, Richard Lugar was already a dead man walking. He just didn't realize it.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This year, a new book by John T. Shaw appeared about Sen. Richard G. Lugar, who lost his primary to Tea Party candidate and Indiana state treasurer Richard Mourdock. Like Lugar, its tone is steady, reassuring, and unexciting. The tome is called Statesman of the Senate: Crafting Foreign Policy from Capitol Hill. It has received blurbs from everyone from former senior Clinton administration official and Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott — "a trenchant study of statesmanship as practiced from the legislative branch of our government" — to former Sen. Sam Nunn — "A close-up look at the dedication, effectiveness, and outstanding public service of Senator Dick Lugar."

Such encomiums from top Democratic pooh-bahs should come as no surprise: Lugar has burnished his reputation over the past several decades by cooperating with Democrats on important foreign-affairs issues, notably those regarding nonproliferation agreements with Russia. Writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, columnist Peggy Noonan called for Lugar’s reelection and summed up the consensus view: "In Washington now very few have their eye on the big picture. Mr. Lugar does." With Lugar’s defeat, a chorus of media Cassandras will surely declare that the defeat of a senator whom Time magazine called "The Wise Man" represents a terrible blow to U.S. foreign policy and that it essentially spells the official end of a bipartisan approach.

But just how significant is Lugar’s loss? Does it really signify something more than the defeat of an octogenarian who had worn out his welcome with a state he has not resided in since 1977?

The truth is that Lugar is already a spent force. Yes, he was a Republican who supported the United Nations and believed in international law. Yes, he abhorred inflammatory rhetoric. But his signature achievements — such as the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, which has, among other things, resulted in the deactivation of thousands of Russian strategic nuclear warheads and the elimination of hundreds of intercontinental ballistic missiles — are now long behind him and will have to be taken up by a new generation. Whether he returns to the Senate is largely irrelevant.

His principal function nowadays is to serve as a sonorous adornment on the Washington dinner circuit, not for his accomplishments, but, rather, as a venerable symbol of a bygone era. Lugar was a product of the Cold War, when Democrats and Republicans squabbled about how to deal with the communist threat, but didn’t act as though foreign affairs was irrelevant to America’s future. Over the past decade, however, Lugar was barely on active service in the Senate. As Indiana voters sensed, Lugar has become the pet creature of the foreign-policy establishment, wheeled out on occasions when a Republican was needed to bless an event or policy as bipartisan. But politically, he was a dead man walking.

Call him the last RINO.

Lugar’s transformation could be seen in the stands he took, or did not take, in recent years. Once chummy with Sen. Barack Obama — the Obama campaign ran ads of the two together, a move that Lugar did not object to during the 2008 campaign — he became increasingly peevish following Obama’s victory. Confronted with the Tea Party challenge, Lugar didn’t try to pull an Orrin Hatch; rather, he attempted a mild makeover of his foreign-policy record. The champion of an emollient bipartisanship sought to distance himself from Obama. His internationalism may not have gone out the window, but he had certainly begun to roll up the blinds. For example, Lugar was a sharp critic of the Obama administration’s intervention in Libya. So in March 2011, he suddenly donned the plumage of a budget hawk, stating on CBS’s Face the Nation: "Almost all of our congressional days are spent on budget deficits, outrageous problems. Yet, at the same time, all of this [intervention] passes, which is a very expensive operation." This from the senator who has been the most stalwart champion of the foreign aid derided by much of his party.

As Joshua Hersh incisively reports on Huffington Post, Lugar’s new approach to foreign policy went beyond what he said. It was what he refused to say that is most telling. News releases about foreign policy? Lugar’s presses went silent. His campaign website focused on "The Obama Agenda" and "Cutting Waste." Foreign affairs — Lugar’s calling card — had become almost invisible as he tried to dodge the charge of being what Mourdock derisively branded a "globe-trotter." He even tried to deflect attention, Hersh writes, from the book Shaw devoted to him. Its preface admiringly states, "His schedule looks more like that of a deputy foreign minister than a senator." Well, yes. But not the kind of praise that wins you tough primary contests in Indiana, apparently.

In a party that will become increasingly torn between its neoconservative wing on the one hand and its Tea Party wing on the other, Lugar had become a party of one. The foreign-policy establishment is largely frozen out from the Republican Party. With the rise of the neocons, the Democratic Party has become increasingly receptive to it — former Sen. Chuck Hagel, for example, has an outside chance at a top job if Obama wins a second term.

And if Lugar had somehow eked out a win, what would he have been able to accomplish? Noonan surmised that he would be "newly alive to certain conservative needs and concerns." Trying to muscle over Russia, which Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has blithely declared is America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe? Attacking the Iranian mullahs? Whether or not Lugar is in the Senate, Lugarism has had its day.

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