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How the Media is Enabling the GOP’s Rightward Drift

Richard Lugar’s loss in Tuesday night’s primary has been heralded by commenters on both sides of the aisle as a harbinger of doom for moderate Republicans. The conventional wisdom has quickly congealed: Lugar lost because he voted for Barack Obama’s Supreme Court candidates, worked with Obama on an arms control treaty, and was generally not partisan enough for a GOP dominated by the Tea Party.

That interpretation is plausible. But it’s not the only, or even the most likely scenario. There’s a high probability that Richard Lugar lost because he was 80 years old, didn’t keep a house in Indiana, ran an indifferent—at best—campaign, and focused on foreign policy rather than bringing home benefits to his state. But the first reading is the one that will be accepted by the press and, more importantly, by Republican politicians. Everyone is biased to believe that Lugar lost because of an ideological purge—and the acceptance of that interpretation will unfortunately further encourage Republican Members of Congress to stick as closely as possible to the rejectionist ideologues who run the GOP.

There’s a long history of foreign policy experts in the Senate finding that their constituents care a lot more about goodies for the state than accounting for loose nukes in the former Soviet Union (or whatever national security issue is on the table). And a Roll Call story by Shira Toeplitz a week before the vote made a good case that Lugar, like many aging legislators who hadn’t needed to engage in a serious campaign in years, had no idea how to run a modern campaign.

Why is there such a strong bias to accept the other interpretation? Movement conservatives, of course, want to claim credit for defeating Lugar; they’d like to use that story to pressure politicians into ideological orthodoxy. Individuals and organizations within that movement, too, have an interest in acquiring a reputation for being giant-killers. Oddly enough, partisan Democrats also prefer this narrative: It’s much better for fundraising to tell your donors that you’re competing with a powerful extremist movement than to tell them that some out-of-touch Republican senator lost.

Who else? Washington-based centrists love Dick Lugar. Therefore, they’d prefer to pin the loss on outside forces and crazy ideologues than to find any fault with Lugar’s own behavior. Nor do they want to accept the perhaps sad reality that part of the price for foreign policy leadership may be that constituents won’t care about your accomplishments. The national press gets a better storyline, too. In Indiana, “what happened to Richard Lugar?” might make a compelling headline, but from a national perspective a continuing story of conservative purges is far more exciting than a one-off about a Senator who may be a Washington institution but isn’t very well-known outside the Beltway.

There is one person, though, who has an incentive to play up the “out-of-touch” version of events: Richard Mourdock, the guy who won. After all, he’s now a general election candidate, and whatever he wants to be known for down the line (and whatever he said during the nomination campaign), right now he wants to win votes of moderate Republicans. However, Mourdock may well believe the pervasive ideological purge story himself—and, even if he doesn’t, the conservative groups who invested in his victory (whether or not they were the ones who made a difference) will be sure to remind him of it if he wins in November.

Add it all up and there’s an excellent chance that by the time the 113th Congress meets in January, every Republican Senator will “know” that Dick Lugar was defeated for being too reasonable and too moderate. Granted, they’ll also all make sure to check that the state of their home state residency; we’re not likely to see that mistake again for a while.

But congressional Republicans will take Lugar’s defeat more as a call to pay attention to Club For Growth’s key votes than to schedule some extra visits home and a few more town hall meetings. They’ll be even more motivated to reject compromise on principle and be uber-vigilant about opposing by filibuster Barack Obama’s judicial and executive branch nominations (if Obama is still in the White House). That’s bad for the proper functioning of democracy regardless of the reason, but it will be especially tragic if the real cause was just Dick Lugar’s losing touch with home.

Jonathan Bernstein blogs at A Plain Blog About Politics.