The Magazine

Indiana Fires a Senator

The end of Lugar’s winning streak.

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Richard Lugar’s long career in the U.S. Senate came to an end last Tuesday night in a primary election. Six years ago, running for a sixth term, he not only faced no opposition within his own party, he ran essentially unopposed in the general election. So this is a bad, undistinguished, and forlorn end. And Lugar took it that way, issuing some spiteful advice on his way out to the man who had beaten him. That advice came down, essentially, to “Do it the way I did it or you’ll fail.” Strangely defiant counsel from a man who had just been exposed as a failure.

Photo of Richard Lugar

There was a quality to Lugar’s last act that put one in mind of a longtime college football coach, hanging on by his fingernails and reminding the faithful of all those good seasons and big wins in years gone by. (For actual football fans, think Bobby Bowden of Florida State.) 

There had been great seasons for the old coach. Memorable victories over hated rivals. Conference championships. Trips to the major bowl games. But the years had begun to catch up and the game had begun to pass him by. Where the record at season’s end had once been 11-1 or 10-2, it was now 7-4 or 6-5 with a couple of embarrassing, blowout losses. When the fans grew restive, the old coach reacted with equal measures of hurt and indignation. Don’t you remember where this school was before I got here and all I’ve done since?

“Yeah, coach. But we lost five games last season and that’s a fresher memory.”

So the old coach talks about how the stadium improvements are coming, how he’s recruiting a bunch of studs who will turn things around, how the graduation rate has improved and none of his players have knocked over a single liquor store lately. Anything but what the fans really care about, which is winning.

Lugar was a Senate insider and a citizen of Beltwaystan. His claim on the affections of Indiana voters was that he knew how to get things done in Washington, that he could work with people on the other side of the aisle, that he was capable of compromise.

Which is to say, whatever the Washington record of the last 36 years, Richard Lugar owned a part of it. To a lot of voters, that record doesn’t look even as good as 6-5, with a possible bid to the Poinsettia Bowl.

Senator Lugar had more ardent support outside of the state and from within the political class than he did at home. The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan saw him as one of the grownups in the room and lamented the fact that those impulsive voters in Indiana were going to do something rash and deprive the nation of Lugar’s formidable talents. 

One wonders how any grownup serving in the United States Senate could not have noticed that the country was sliding into a bottomless pit of debt. Fifteen trillion dollars and counting. What were the grownups doing while this was happening? And, by the way, with Senator Lugar, sage practitioner of bipartisanship, as one of its starters, the U.S. Senate has gone 0-3 on passing a budget these last three years. Whoever replaces him in the Senate should, in spite of his inexperience, have no trouble matching that performance.

Senator Lugar will be missed in the Senate and in Washington, where extreme self-regard is something you come down with from drinking the water and where the defeat of a long-term incumbent and quintessential insider is felt as an almost personal rebuke. “How could they? What’s wrong with those rubes?” the insiders think, so both John Kerry and the White House press office issued statements expressing their disappointment in the Indiana results and their high regard for Richard Lugar, one of their own. Senator Kerry went so far as to call the loss of Lugar a “tragedy for the Senate,” which is laying it on a bit thick, but characteristic of the man.

Meanwhile, out in the country, people are thinking that after a couple of 3-8 seasons, we’ll be lucky to go 2-9 this year.

Geoffrey Norman is a writer in Vermont.

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