Mark Schoeff Jr.: DC divides into a chasm
Thursday, May 10, 2012 7:14 AM
WASHINGTON - Over the course of the 20 years that I’ve worked in Washington, the partisan divide has steadily grown into a chasm.
First, the Clinton administration made its campaign war room a central feature in daily policy battles. Later, the George W. Bush administration wasted an opportunity to cement bipartisan comity following the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy by attacking Democrats in the 2002 election on security issues.
Democrats then became obsessed with payback – and Bush bashing continued for years. Today, the parties have implacable differences on nearly every issue.
At each milepost along the journey, I was bullish about American politics. At the most critical times, legislators would figure out a way to compromise.
I’m losing my confidence following the defeat of Sen. Richard Lugar in Tuesday’s Republican primary. The forces that took down Lugar are working to ensure that any attempt at bipartisanship – even an effort to listen to the other side – will be met with severe political consequences.
Lugar will continue to make substantial contributions to economic and security policy and international relations. Maybe he’ll even find that leaving the Senate is liberating. The Senate, however, will find Lugar’s departure a major setback. Tuesday was a sad day for U.S. governance.
I’m not sure where Congress will turn now to find leaders who can rise above the partisan fray and get something accomplished for the good of the country.
Profound legislative achievements always require the participation of both parties. Lugar proved that by teaming up with then-Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga., to write and pass a measure that has dismantled thousands of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union.
Lugar and Nunn worked together to overcome a strong resistance to international affairs in the early 1990s. The focus then was on the faltering economy – and Washington was riveted by a special Senate election in Pennsylvania that revolved around health care. Lugar and Nunn forged ahead, perhaps saving countless lives over the last generation in the process.
On the domestic side, Lugar was at the forefront of reducing the size and scope of government 15 years before the tea party threw its first fit about government spending. Lugar fought a lonely battle in the mid-1990s to slash the bureaucracy at the U.S. Department of Agriculture – meeting resistance even from fellow Republicans.
As chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, he wrote a farm bill around the same time that set U.S. agricultural policy on a glide path toward fiscal responsibility.
He was waging the ag fights at a time when the economy was growing and Washington didn’t face a massive budget deficit. He wasn’t riding a popular wave of fiscal conservatism. He was creating it based on the Hoosier values that he brought to Congress every day over more than three decades.
I cite these examples of Lugar’s legislative career because I was working for him at the time -- as his deputy press secretary from 1992-94 and as press secretary from 1995-97. It was a privilege to see firsthand what each Hoosier civics student should be taught about public service. Lugar is an exemplary legislator, leader and an exceptional man.
I have no way of knowing whether the Lugar campaign made mistakes, but the voters of Indiana surely did on Tuesday.
Somehow, they didn’t see, or chose to ignore, that the very thing they were looking for in a senator – someone who works on their behalf across partisan lines – is exactly who they had in the incumbent.
Even though he was facing a tough re-election, Lugar stayed in the arena. He lost, but he stayed true to himself and true to the approach to governance that the country desperately needs at this time of overwhelming challenges.
“Ideology cannot be a substitute for a determination to think for yourself, for a willingness to study an issue objectively, and for the fortitude to sometimes disagree with your party or even your constituents,” Lugar said in a statement on Tuesday night. “Like Edmund Burke, I believe leaders owe the people they represent their best judgment.”
That’s what Lugar gave to Indiana for 35 years. Whoever wins his Senate seat in November should listen to Lugar and do likewise.
Schoeff is HPI’s Washington correspondent.