I know it’s easy to critique a campaign from the sidelines, but it’s really difficult to understand what Dick Lugar is thinking. I catch his television commercials from time to time, and as a past supporter and contributor, I get email blasts from his campaign daily.
It is increasingly painful and off-putting to watch.
The Dick Lugar I used to know and admire was a statesman. I didn’t always agree with him–even when I was still a Republican, he was sometimes too conservative for me–but I always respected him; he was reasoned and thoughtful, gracious to his opponents and informed in his positions. It’s true that, as the party moved right, Lugar moved with it, but never to the fringe. He never stooped to the sort of hateful rhetoric and flat-earth know-nothingness that has so diminished the Grand Old Party. He was never an ideologue.
Lugar is being challenged by the worst elements of an increasingly irrational base. Mourdock, his primary opponent, is a bad joke. But as Jim Shella wrote in an earlier column on this race, Mourdock isn’t the point. While there are certainly legitimate criticisms that can be leveled at him (or any other long-serving elected official), Lugar’s opposition is largely fueled by a veritable tsunami of anger and resentment and fear that has focused on him as a part of the hated status quo.
And therein lies the challenge.
Shella was right: the Tea Party fanatics who want Dick Lugar gone don’t care who replaces him. They detest Lugar for the very characteristics that have generated consistent voter support over the years. That very obvious reality puts his campaign squarely between the proverbial rock and hard place–if he remains true to himself and his record, if he campaigns on that record with his head held high, he won’t win the votes of the ideologues most likely to vote in the primary. But if he tries to reinvent himself as a rabid True Believer, he betrays his own principles, diminishes an otherwise admirable legacy–and still may not get their votes.
Despite the risks, the campaign has chosen the latter strategy.
So we are treated to grainy commercials featuring the Senator using “good old boy” terminology he’s never previously employed. We get emails from his campaign demonizing the President of the United States, stooping to a level of disrespect that would have been inconceivable coming from the “real” Dick Lugar. We are assured that the Senator no longer supports measures, like the Dream Act, that he had previously–and admirably–championed. We get messages that are absolutely devoid of the nuance and civility characteristic of the statesman he used to be.
It is so pathetic, so inauthentic, it’s painful.
I don’t know whether this all-out pandering will allow Lugar to eke out one last term. He has a lot of money, and a deep reservoir of good will, and it may be enough–although if I were a wagering woman, I wouldn’t bet on it.
I know a number of Democrats who had earlier considered “crossing over” to vote for Lugar in the GOP primary. I was one of them. Had the campaign chosen a different course–had it mounted a full-throated defense of an impressive record–I think many of those crossover votes would materialize, although probably not enough to change the outcome. Fewer such votes will be cast for a man running away from his own most admirable traits.
The longer this primary contest goes on, the more I want to ask the Senator two questions: is winning another term, at age 80, so important that it is worth this unseemly (and unpersuasive) groveling? And if you win, if you return to Washington after this dispiriting display, which Dick Lugar will you be?