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Sen. Richard Lugar's departure ends age of quiet diplomacy

Democrats bemoan his GOP primary loss in Indiana as a blow to bipartisan cooperation. Members of his own party are more restrained in their admiration.

May 09, 2012|By Lisa Mascaro and Paul Richter, Washington Bureau
  • Sen. Richard Lugar, 80, leaves Tuesday after his concession speech in Indianapolis. He lost Indiana’s GOP primary for his longtime seat to tea-party-backed conservative Richard Mourdock.
Sen. Richard Lugar, 80, leaves Tuesday after his concession speech in Indianapolis.… (Darron Cummings, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — Days before Christmas 2010, Congress was in a foul mood. Republicans had just swept the midterm elections, but Democrats were intent on finishing the year with a landmark lame-duck session on President Obama's top priorities.

One measure, a revamped nuclear nonproliferation treaty with Russia, faced Republican opposition and an uncertain fate. Key GOP leaders opposed it.

But Sen.Richard G. Lugarof Indiana, the party's elder statesman on foreign policy issues, was in favor. His stature helped deliver enough GOP votes to provide the supermajority needed for approval, and that Congress finished as one of the most productive in a generation.

Lugar's defeat in this week's GOP primary election to Richard Mourdock, a tea-party-backed conservative, essentially brings to a close an age of quiet diplomacy in American politics that no longer appears to have much currency on Capitol Hill.

"His wisdom and patience were invaluable in laying out the case, particularly in building support across the aisle so that we could find the path to 71 votes," Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, recounted Wednesday. "Given the bitter, divisive, partisan, continual political squabbling that seems to dominate life in the city today, 71 votes is probably the equivalent of the 98 votes we used to get on those kinds of efforts. And so I am grateful to his work."

The partisan divide over Lugar's forced retirement was reflected in tributes to the 80-year-old senator, whose campaign appeared caught off guard by the bare-knuckle contest that ended in a landslide for his opponent. Mourdock, who won more than 60% of the vote, will face Democratic Rep. Joe Donnelly in what is now one of this fall's most-watched races.

From Obama down, Democrats bemoaned the loss of a bipartisan partner — a thinking person's senator known to put principle before party. Former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), whose name shares a pivotal nuclear disarmament measure with Lugar, called him a "model for collegiality."

Republicans were more restrained, speaking generally of the respect and affection they have for their senior member.

"Obviously, we've lost knowledge, background, experience — a person that certainly all of us that I know have admiration for," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who backed Lugar but, as his party's globe-trotting defense hawk, never traveled with him on fact-finding trips abroad.

Lugar's resistance to following the party script led him into trouble in Washington and Indiana, a conservative-leaning state still smarting from helping to elect Obama in 2008. During more than 35 years in the Senate, he delighted in working on serious if not always flashy foreign policy subjects.

He was a passionate advocate, for example, of the Law of the Seas Treaty, a long-stalled pact setting rules for naval and commercial uses of the seas that conservatives have staunchly opposed. Lugar, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, helped pass the New START treaty that December two years ago. And before that, he joined Democrats in an unsuccessful attempt to pass the Dream Act, to give young immigrants here illegally a path to citizenship if they went to college or joined the military.

One Republican colleague Wednesday called him a "mysterious man, as to where he was coming from politically."

Lugar was "kind of a party of one — an outlier on certain things," said one Senate aide.

Yet his absence will probably make a difference in what Republicans support, and what is accomplished, on foreign policy.

Lugar has resisted pressure in the Senate each year for cuts in foreign aid. And he has worked quietly over two decades to ensure implementation of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act of 1991, which aims to dismantle and safeguard the vast former Soviet arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The law regularly runs into bureaucratic roadblocks in the former Soviet republics and the United States, requiring Lugar's intervention.

Although 80 is not unusually old for a senator, some saw signs that Lugar was not as strong as he once was. "He's slowing down," said one former aide who worked closely with him.

The senator's own campaign stumbles contributed to his downfall, especially as Mourdock toured the state scooping up support from local officials who had not seen Lugar in some time. When it became known that after 35 years in Washington, Lugar needed to re-register at his longtime family farm to be eligible to vote in Indiana, the narrative that he was out of touch became difficult to repel.

"He is a conservative of the more classic mode," said former Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah. "This is the end of an era."

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