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Who Ever Said Dick Lugar Was a Moderate?

In 2010, John Danforth, a former Republican Senator from Missouri, was asked about the possibility of a GOP primary challenge to Indiana Senator Richard Lugar. Danforth pointed out that Lugar was a six-term Senator, one of the Senate’s most respected members, and its leading authority on foreign policy. He warned that “If Dick Lugar … is seriously challenged by anybody in the Republican Party, we have gone so far overboard that we are beyond redemption.”

Many commentators will draw precisely that message from Lugar’s defeat Tuesday night by his Tea Party-aligned challenger Richard Mourdock. Lugar was one of the few remaining Republican senators who might be described as moderate, and his loss weakens the already frail forces of bipartisanship, compromise, and comity on Capitol Hill. But it has been a long time since Lugar openly identified as a moderate Republican, and other factors besides intra-party factional warfare may have been principally responsible for his political demise.

In 1967, when Lugar became the first Republican mayor of Indianapolis in nearly two decades, he was, indeed, considered a progressive. He pleased moderates by running a tight fiscal and administrative ship, but also by demonstrating genuine concern for social problems. He championed education reforms, created programs to place the hardcore unemployed in decent jobs, built low-cost family housing, took action against air and water pollution, and built relationships with the black community that spared the city the riots and disorder that plagued many other cities in the late 1960s. His “UniGov” plan—which unified the Indianapolis and Marion County governments, against the bitter objections of conservatives—boosted the region’s economy and extended the reach and enforcement of fair employment and fair housing laws.

Lugar’s urban leadership became one of the prime arguments for Richard Nixon’s “New Federalist” vision of decentralizing power from the federal to state and local levels, and Lugar was often described as “Nixon’s favorite mayor.” But his success also earned him respect from Democrats as well as Republicans. This earned him personal rewards—in 1971, he was elected president of the National League of Cities—but also benefitted his party, by demonstrating how the GOP could appeal to typically Democratic constituencies, including urbanites, labor, and minorities. Indeed, Lugar won a second mayoral term by a landslide, receiving 30 percent of the black vote—the best showing for a Republican since the New Deal—as well as 50 percent of the union vote and 80 percent of the Jewish vote.

Lugar then leveraged his moderate, modernizing record and reputation to win election to the U.S. Senate in 1977. As senator, Lugar associated with other moderate Republicans such as Danforth and Howard Baker, whose 1980 presidential campaign he chaired. He described Baker as a politician with aptitudes “in bringing together coalitions and in offering … pragmatic skills of working out disputes,” a characterization that would apply to Lugar as well.

But Lugar declined the opportunity to lead the moderate Republican forces, to define the moderate position, or to resist the growing influence of conservatives in the party. Nor, as his interests shifted toward foreign policy, did he involve himself deeply in the domestic reform efforts with which he once had been identified. He became known as a Republican loyalist—by some measures he gave Ronald Reagan greater legislative support than any other senator—and a reliable conservative.

As the GOP shifted right, Lugar did too, although like John McCain he earned a maverick reputation by contesting the conservative line on certain issues. Lugar advocated sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa and contested Ferdinand Marcos’ fraudulent election in the Philippines—both instances where he opposed Reagan and prevailed. Lugar also courted, and acquired, statesmanlike stature for his efforts to secure arms control agreements, reduce nuclear stockpiles, and strengthen international institutions. And flashes of his past moderation could be seen in his support for the DREAM Act, certain forms of gun control, and the preservation of the federal school lunch program. His cardinal sin, in the eyes of the Tea Party and the Club for Growth, was his vote for the Troubled Assets Relief Program of 2008, although those so-called economic conservatives prefer not to speculate on what would have happened if government had allowed the financial sector to melt down.

But angry as the Tea Party became with him, Lugar had also been disowned by the moderate faction of which he was once a part. Indeed, the Senate’s dwindling number of Republican moderates expressed more frustration with Lugar than with any other colleague because they felt that too often he sided against them despite his better judgment. Rhode Island Senator Lincoln Chafee, a liberal Republican, was convinced that it galled Lugar to witness George W. Bush and Richard Cheney undoing decades of bipartisan achievements in international relations. Yet “time and again,” Chafee wrote in his book Against the Tide, “Senator Lugar showed an unwillingness to fight with the White House over the direction of our foreign policy.”

Lugar, ultimately, was not really a moderate so much as a remnant of the Republican breed that believed in cooperation, pragmatism, tradition, stability, and gentlemanly restraint. That breed included many conservatives as well as moderates, and Lugar’s downfall marks its virtual extinction in Republican politics. The current breed does not feel, as he did, that a president from the opposing party deserves any measure of deference in his appointments of Supreme Court justices, or that a senator’s mind and conscience should be his own rather than the property of a hard-edged ideological movement. Lugar’s defeat, due in part to the offense the Indiana GOP took at his Virginia residency, ensures that now all Congressmen will become Tuesday-to-Thursday part-timers whose ideological purity will be unsullied by any temptation to view their partisan opponents as human beings worthy of respect.

Lugar had become something of an establishment relic—after all, he would have been almost eighty-seven years old at the end of a seventh term—and it’s not certain that he could have fended off a primary challenge even if he had fought harder against the conservative tide. It may be that his bipartisanship and comparative moderation contributed to his loss, or his defeat may simply have reflected the political truism that young blood drives out the old. What’s certain is that the Senate will miss his qualities, and in time so may we all.

Geoffrey Kabaservice is the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party.