Lessons of Lugar and Specter: Only Pure Need Apply (Guest Voice)
Lessons of Lugar and Specter: Only Pure Need Apply
by Scott Crass
Over the course of the past two elections, voters in Democratic and Republican primaries have shown the door to two of the most senior and influential members of the body. They include the man who was arguably among the Senate’s few Constitutional and legal scholars, Arlen Specter, as well as one of the body’s leading Foreign Affairs scholar, Richard Lugar.
More importantly, these Senators were institutionalists who cared deeply about process. They enjoyed the respect and admiration of their colleagues and were credited with being among the body’s most diplomatic and consummate negotiators, often crossing party lines to turn complex ideas into reality (curiously, both also were briefly opponents for the 1996 Presidential nomination when even then, their ideals were from an era bygone). But ultimately, that proved to be their downfall, and disturbingly, it’s becoming more and more the norm.
To be sure, the circumstances surrounding the loss of both Senators were different. Specter left the Republican Party in his 29th year in the Senate and Democrats couldn’t stomach the thought of voting for someone who was adroitly exposed in his opponent’s ads as“an ally” of George W.Bush. But Specter had bolted only when it became clear that he could not be re-nominated, a fact he admitted from the start.
The most recent reason for conservative fury was that Specter had sided with Democrats on the stimulus, but conservatives had long been mistrustful of him since his vote against confirming Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. This despite the fact that he had supported, and by all accounts, given fair hearings to everyone of George W.Bush’s Judicial nominees, and had nearly ended his own career through his fierce questioning of Anita Hill (which infuriated Democrats, women’s organizations, and me).
Specter’s legal mind was the keenest among any current Senator and his intellect first rate. As far back as 1970, he was thought to be on Richard Nixon’s short-list for the Supreme Court.
Specter kept his cards close to the vest when it came to his votes, often to the consternation of both parties. He had a prickliness that didn’t always sit well, and an inquisitive style that, if not answered to his liking, could leave witnesses, staff, and other Senators quivering. But his word was his bond, and even if his ultimate vote was political, colleagues knew it was well thought out.
If Specter’s prickliness was off-putting, Lugar’s congenial nature, “Hoosier smile,” and knack for civility made him beloved among colleagues.
In the 1997 book,”Inside Congress,” by Ronald Kessler, one Senator would explain how upon casting votes, he and other Senators would routinely gather around Michigan Democrat Phil Hart, (for whom the Senate Office building was later named),to see the right way to vote. In this era, that Senator could easily have been referring to Lugar.
Lugar supported Obama Supreme Court nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elaina Kagan (he did oppose Steven Breyer on grounds that Breyer wasn’t forthright about investments).He backed the “Dream Act,” even though it faced scorn with all but a few of his GOP colleagues. He has voted in favor of gun control and publicly mulled a way to support the legislation ending “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” though in the end, he did not. Lugar was also among the most vociferous proponents of the START Treaty, which ultimately received 2/3 of the Senate, but before which left Lugar in the wilderness in his own party.
A master of foreign affairs, Lugar could easily have been the body’s most astute foreign affairs guru since Bill Fulbright. At Madeline Albright’s confirmation hearing, many of the questions of other Senators were either perfunctory or window dressing. But Lugar tossed out serious issues about, among other things, the complexity of Russia.
Lugar’s rapport with members of the Indiana delegation was so strong that he often didn’t campaign against members of the opposite party even when they were facing tough races (eminently endangered Congressman Baron Hill was one such person.). Birch Bayh, himself a once-reverential figure in Indiana who was challenged by Lugar in 1974, called his loss “a disaster.” Despite their one-time rivalry, Bayh calls Lugar one of the finest men he knows.
Lugar was so averse to taking cheap shots that on one of the rare occasions that he did publicly ding a colleague, it was not a Democrat, but a Republican. Jesse Helms, whom he’s never exchanged Christmas cards with (the two had locked arms in a battle for the Senate Foreign Relations Chairmanship in 1987) was holding up the nomination of Bill Weld to Ambassador to Mexico . Lugar, chair of the Agriculture Committee, publicly threatened to hold up tobacco subsidies for North Carolina if Helms didn’t relent. Helms was startled but didn’t budge.
The campaign Lugar ran in his bid for a seventh term was amateurish, that’s for darned sure. But the scope of the loss — 23 percentage points and in all but three of the state’s counties, is evidence that even a first-rate campaign wouldn’t have been enough.
It’s not just the departure of centrists that bode ill. It’s the loss of the scholars, the independent thinkers, the folks who make the trains run.
In his farewell speech on the Senate floor and in his new book, “Life Among the Cannibals,” Specter noted how his Utah colleague Bob Bennett was denied re-nomination for supporting TARP and working with Democrat Ron Wyden on healthcare legislation, even though, as Specter mentions, Bennett still had a conservative score of 93%, He mentioned how Mike Castle had been rejected by Delaware Republicans in favor of a woman who” thought it necessary to defend herself as not being a witch.” And he recalled the the vibrancy of the moderate wing of the GOP caucus upon his arrival in the Senate, rolling out names long out of office like Weicker, Stafford ,Hatfield, and Danforth, to name a few.
It’s not solely Republicans who are being impacted. Wyden has faced not-so-subtle arm twisting from Democratic colleagues for trying to forge an agreement with Democraic boogeyman Paul Ryan on a Medicare reform package.
The fire that moderates are facing has made other traditional accomodationalists far less malleable. Chuck Grassley is a curmudgeon, aw-shucks, Iowa stubborn farmer who until recently had himself been among the most sincerely liked and trusted deal makers with Ds. He always took pains to vote Iowa first (even casting one of just two GOP votes against the Persian Gulf War resolution in 1991).But on health care, he seemed to cave to the wishes of GOP leadership and threat of right wing primary challenge in 2010, probably in that order. To put Grassley’s shift into perspective, in the past, it was Democrats who were critical of their own for compromising too much with him.
Grassley is now the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he has been helping to slow down the pace of much needed Judicial confirmations, even though he will ultimately vote for most of them.
Then there is Olympia Snowe. The Maine Republican bemoans intractability and has sided with Democrats on some key votes, and she is a master negotiator. But Democrats and Republicans alike agree that she caved in to GOP pressure to deny Obama healthcare win. What was most puzzling is that she voted for a measure in the Senate Finance Committee, the sole Republican to do so.
Harry Reid, a former boxer who knows how to play the political game as well as anyone in the Senate, questioned whether Snowe ever had intentions of compromising. My theory: she absolutely did. But the pressure from within became so immense that her vote proved elusive.
Even in major roll call votes, the trend is evident. Just prior to the House vote on Obama’s stimulus package, as many as 15 Republicans were publicly flirting with backing it. But then Minority Leader Boehner implored his caucus to stay united, and when the vote was called, not a single one voted for the package.
If there is a message in recent primaries it’s that only purists need apply. And that is detrimental. Iowa Republican Fred Grandy (best known as “Gopher” on the Love Boat) once called himself a “knee-jerk moderate.” We need more of that and more importantly, tolerance from within.
Our country deserve nothing less.
Scott Crass writes: “Punditry has long been my passion and I thrive on offering non-partisan commentary on upcoming elections with historical perspectives .From Maine to Maui, no election is too obscure and there’s not a character I don’t dissect. I call the races as I see them as I see them, even if it’s contrary to what I want to see happen. And for us political junkies and then some, it’s never too early. And if you can’t tell which side I’m on, I’m doing a heck of a job. Check out my analysis on twitter.com/crasspolitical.