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Defining Dissidence Down

- May 10, 2012

In all the coverage of Senator Richard Lugar’s crushing 20-point loss at the hands of Indiana State Treasurer Richard Mourdock in the Indiana Republican Senate primary reporters can agree on one thing. Lugar is a “moderate.” Similarly, in a recent post Nate Silver lists the many Republican Senate “moderates” who have left office, voluntarily or otherwise, in recent years. Moderation in the GOP ain’t what it used to be; one of those Silver listed was Rick Santorum.

Lugar’s career is a striking illustration of how the definition of “moderate” has changed as the GOP has marched rightward. When Lugar entered the Senate in the 95th Congress (1977-1978) his first dimension DW-NOMINATE score was .348. By this measure the Indiana Senator was to the right of center in the GOP Conference, being the 16th most conservative of the 38 Republicans in the Senate.

The freshman Lugar was to the right not only of elderly liberal Republicans who generally voted with Democrats like Jacob Javits and Clifford Case (both of whom would soon lose primaries to conservatives), but also of Republicans like Senators Bob Packwood and Mark Hatfield of Oregon. Hatfield was something of a Christian pacifist, pro-life and against wars, big Pentagon budgets and the death penalty. Packwood was strongly pro-choice. Both Oregonians had mixed records on economic issues, pleasing neither business nor labor consistently. Lugar was also to the right of both the Senate Minority Leader, Howard Baker, his whip Ted Stevens and even Bob Dole, whom President Ford had picked to replace Vice-President Nelson Rockefeller as his running-mate in the 1976 Presidential race in order to appease the conservative wing of the GOP.

Conservatives are wary of Republicans who linger in Washington,fearing they will attend one too many “Georgetown cocktail parties” and gradually sell out in order to win “strange new respect” from the pundit class. For sure, the pundits loved Lugar, but has he changed over the years? Not that much. Throughout his career Lugar has gotten very low ratings from organized labor and environmental groups and high marks from business lobbies.

Lugar has generally voted anti-abortion and, once the issue got on the agenda, anti-gay rights, opposing the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell despite polls showing the public favored that move. Lugar supported the Bush tax cuts and the Iraq War. He opposed the stimulus, the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform. He voted to put Robert Bork and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court. Lugar voted for the Gulf War, the death penalty, oil drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refugee and removing President Clinton from office.

It is true that by the same measure Lugar’s D1 NOMINATE score dropped from .348 in his first Congress, to .241 in the last one, but moving his score ten points does not change his ranking within the Republican Conference very much in either Congress. Yet because of turnover in the conference during his tenure Lugar was the seventh most liberal Republican in the last Congress. Over the years new cohorts of GOP Senators have been more conservative than their elders, so Lugar’s position in political space has changed even though his stands mostly have not.

Of course Lugar has broken with conservatives on several issues over the years from the Dream Act to the Brady Bill. He led a bipartisan move to override President Reagan’s veto of sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime in 1986. But Lugar was hardly alone then. It was a GOP Senate that overrode Reagan’s veto. At that time Lugar was not a fringe figure in the GOP and it took a good deal more to be pushed outside the Republican tent than it does now.

More important than any particular vote, Lugar’s interest in working across the aisle is badly out of step with the mood of today’s GOP. As that party has become more conservative smaller and smaller deviations from the party line have become dangerous. For a long time being pro-choice was a litmus test which journalists used to determine who was a “moderate” Republican. Well, Lugar is not pro-choice. But if he voted for Alito and Bork (unlike several GOP Senators including Packwood, Specter and John Warner), Lugar also voted for Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, a fact that angered some pro-life activists despite his many years of 100% National Right to Life Committee Ratings, his votes against abortion funding and support of a Constitutional Amendment overturning Roe v. Wade. Voting for a President’s Supreme Court nominees, especially those who would not radically alter the ideological balance of the Court, used to be standard practice, as Jonathan Chait notes, and Lugar’s votes for Sotomayor and Kagan reflected that custom, but those days are gone.

There are other factors that explain the wide margin of Lugar’s defeat including his advanced age, his rusty campaigning skills after decades of easy wins and his ill-advised failure to maintain a residence in the state he represented for nearly two generations. Yet more importantly, Lugar’s experience is proof that in politics you can move by standing still.