Commentary: Dick Lugar's take on D.C. partisanship

The Charlotte ObserverFebruary 24, 2013 

Few people have more reason to be bitter about America’s political polarization than Dick Lugar – he was fired because of it.

If he’s resentful, though, the six-time U.S. senator is also optimistic that someday the country will repair its dysfunctional government. Given his principal proposal for making that happen, I have my doubts it will be anytime soon.

Lugar represented Indiana for 36 years and was the Senate’s longest-serving Republican when he was ousted in a primary by a Tea Party-backed candidate (and millions of out-of-state dollars). I talked with Lugar last week after his visit to Duke University, where he delivered his first speech since leaving office. He used it to make important points about the nation’s extreme partisanship and to give an unusually contextual and nuanced take on the problem, its causes and solutions.

We Americans tend to focus on domestic issues. To Lugar, who was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the strongest proof of how paralyzing politics has become lies in foreign affairs. That’s been an area of relative cooperation historically, but no more.

Congress, Lugar said, is so divided that it doesn’t even debate “the most strategically important questions in foreign policy,” including China’s rise and how to wage the war on terrorism. The House and Senate have basically stopped legislating on foreign policy, Lugar said, and even non-controversial treaties with close allies have been stalled.

The Senate’s successful filibuster against Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel on Thursday exemplifies the problem. Lugar points out that if Hagel were a Democrat, he would have been quickly confirmed, just as John Kerry was for Secretary of State.

“Senator Hagel’s main transgression is that he is a Republican who has questioned policies that are sacred among most conservative senators,” Lugar said. The opposition to him “is grounded in the resentments of some conservatives inside and outside the Senate who regard his independent thinking as political blasphemy for which he should not be rewarded.” Which is precisely what happened to Lugar himself.

Many pundits have suggested that Ronald Reagan was not conservative enough to be elected by today’s Republicans. Lugar refined that point.

Reagan was as conservative as today’s Republican leaders, he said. But he was willing to compromise. Reagan, Lugar said, “began most of his policy battles by espousing conservative principles, but he did not let his ideology paralyze his fundamental responsibility to govern.” Without that approach, Reagan would have been denied some of his biggest accomplishments, including tax reform in 1986.

We know part of the blame for today’s partisanship lies with gerrymandered districts, tilted so far in favor of one party that a politician has no incentive to move to the middle. Lugar, though, identified what may be the biggest culprit: An industry that profits financially from political division. The industry includes talk shows on cable and radio, websites, partisan think tanks and direct mail fundraisers.

“Many of these entities have a deep economic stake in perpetuating political conflict,” he said. “They are successfully marketing and monetizing partisan outrage.”

Throw in unlimited campaign spending, and candidates who would have once been on the fringe are now in office.

Lugar says nothing will change without a concerted effort to tackle the problem. His solution, while it would be effective, may be unrealistic: President Obama.

Only the president is in a position, Lugar says, to hold the long, private, repeated conversations with Republican leaders that could break the ice. Don’t you feel better already? Obama’s inaugural speech last month suggests he’s moving in the opposite direction of conciliation. Lugar acknowledged to me that “the evidence of change is not abundant,” but said “we’re in the very early innings.”

Perhaps. And some partisanship is natural, even healthy. But now it has become crippling.

Fixing that, ultimately, will be up to voters. Politicians, like most humans, are self-interested. In the current environment, polarizers keep power. Compromisers get ousted after 36 years of splendid service.

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