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Richard Lugar: The Tipping Point for Bipartisanship or Just Good Strategy?

Richard Mourdock, Indiana state treasurer and perennial candidate, pulled off a huge upset (by a huge margin), knocking off a six-term senator in yesterday’s primary. It’s a sign of the times, but don’t dismiss it as unstrategic post-bipartisanship.

Richard Mourdock Dick Lugar

 

As has been the case for the past couple years, the really interesting electoral news has been occuring not in Illinois, but among our neighbors. The passage of a gay marriage (and civil union) ban in North Carolina got the most attention, not to mention the president’s response today. But in terms of the national debate, the election in Indiana was just as interesting. Six-term senator Richard Lugar lost to state treasurer Richard Mourdock, a five-time unsuccessful candidate at the county and state level before winning his current position in 2006, in his primary challenge.

One of the main political storylines in 2012 is ideological polarization at the national level and the accompanying gridlock, something I continually refer back to in infrastructure issues and city/state policy. Recently this storyline has been driven by a couple books. One is It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, by Thomas Mann and Norm Orenstein:

Their principal conclusion is unequivocal: Today’s Republicans in Congress behave like a parliamentary party in a British-style parliament, a winner-take-all system. But a parliamentary party — “ideologically polarized, internally unified, vehemently oppositional” — doesn’t work in a “separation-of-powers system that makes it extremely difficult for majorities to work their will.”

These Republicans “have become more loyal to party than to country,” the authors write, so “the political system has become grievously hobbled at a time when the country faces unusually serious problems and grave threats. . . . The country is squandering its economic future and putting itself at risk because of an inability to govern effectively.”

The other, pleasantly enough for those of us who are fans, is Robert Caro’s new volume in his LBJ biography:

Indeed, Johnson’s “political genius” was a rarity, and Mr. Caro thinks we could use something like it. Although he has a “high opinion” of President Obama and rejects any attempt to read into his work a critique of the more hands-off president, he says the U.S. Senate “is a total mess today.” But the “people who say it’s an unparalleled mess just don’t know the history,” he adds. Asked what could break the partisan logjam in Congress, Mr. Caro admits, “I don’t know.” But he also predicts, “Someday a political genius will come along and make the Senate work.”

Mourdock’s victory over Lugar is significant in that sense because Mourdock ran on the subject of polarization. Specifically, he ran for more of it, blasting Lugar on his cooperation with Obama despite Lugar’s relatively strong conservative bona fides (a 77 percent lifetime ranking from the American Conservative Union, among other things):

But times have changed, and many Republican primary voters — driven in many cases, it should be said, by deep concerns about the nation’s condition — seem intent on nominating more uncompromising candidates such as Tuesday’s winner: state Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a nice enough man but also one who proudly declared recently that the problem in Washington “is too much bipartisanship.”

There is very little bipartisanship in Washington right now. As Ezra Klein points out, a genius-level horse trader like LBJ could shoot for 55 votes to get Medicare passed, while today such a bill requires 60. Conventional Wisdom says that’s a sign of too little bipartisanship in Washington. The guy who just defeated a six-term senator handily says that’s still too much:

I certainly think bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view. … If we [win the House, Senate, and White House], bipartisanship means they have to come our way, and if we’re successful in getting the numbers, we’ll work towards that.

Lugar’s loss to such a candidate is being hailed as a sign the GOP is “beyond redemption” and causing the “breakdown of American governance.”

Or maybe it’s working.

When Barack Obama ran for president four years ago, he appalled some Democrats by saying Ronald Reagan had been a transformational president.

Three years into his presidency, he has exceeded Reagan in one area: reductions in government jobs.

One point I’ve tried to make over and over about state and local budget deficits is that governments are facing difficulties across the board from declining federal support, which Frank Norris emphasizes in his analysis:

The declines were a little larger under Reagan. The local-government job count fell 3.8 percent under him but just 3.5 percent over the last three years. But if teacher employment is the measure, the cuts have been greater under Mr. Obama. Education jobs at the local level are down 3 percent under Mr. Obama, compared to 2.1 percent in the early Reagan years.

[snip]

The declines in government jobs in both the Reagan and Obama presidencies coincided with major recessions, of course, which reduced tax receipts for all levels of government. If Mr. Obama had had his way, state and local government job losses in 2011 could have been reduced with more federal assistance, but such proposals were blocked by Republicans in Congress.

Federal government employment is up slightly in recent years. But it’s still well below that of the Reagan administration; the precipitous decline since the 1990s is in large part a legacy of the Clinton administration, and coincides with the “Republican Revolution” of Gingrich et al., which Ornstein and Mann give the credit for the current political climate to:

What happened? Of course, there were larger forces at work beyond the realignment of the South. They included the mobilization of social conservatives after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the anti-tax movement launched in 1978 by California’s Proposition 13, the rise of conservative talk radio after a congressional pay raise in 1989, and the emergence of Fox News and right-wing blogs. But the real move to the bedrock right starts with two names: Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist.

Civil servants have been cut, frequently replaced with private contractors. Meanwhile, both the top and average federal tax rates have declined—the former ticked up a bit during the Clinton administration, the latter has been falling pretty consistently since 1980.

This is what GOP hardliners have sought for decades, and while many of them cite Ronald Reagan as the font of this movement, they were only semi-successful in achieving those goals at the time. By some measures, they’ve had as much or more success during Democratic presidential adminstrations combined with fiercely oppositional Republican-led House majorities. It may be a “radical” strategy, but I’d stop short at saying it’s not “sensible,” at least as far as the stated aims. If you separate the rhetoric from the results, it seems to work quite well: as well, or even better, when the GOP is in the minority. It may be a failure of bipartisanship, but from the perspective of the conservative movement, bipartisanship has failed them. What that portends may be unacceptable to the electorate at some point, but viewing it as being more loyal to party than to country elides how pols like Gingrich and Mourdock think the country should be.

Update: See also Ed Kilgore:

The latest ideological lurch of the Republican Party came after two consecutive cycles in which the party was beaten like a drum. But it also drifted to the right during every recent Republican presidency; there’s a reason that GOPers were muttering about the “betrayals of conservative principle” their chieftains were exhibiting during W.’s, second term, his father’s one term, and yes, even Ronald Reagan’s second term. Like the tax cuts for the wealthy that are their all-purpose economic policy proposal, a shift to the right has become the all-purpose response to any political development over more than three decades.

Beaten like a drum, sort of, but still successful in achieving its aims.

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