Tuesday's Republican U.S. Senate primary in Indiana has been tightly contested.
Richard Lugar has served in the Senate since 1977. He’s worked with six presidents. Along the way, he’s chaired the powerful Senate Committee on Foreign Relations twice.
During his tenure, Lugar has been known for his ability to reach across the aisle on national security issues. Of note, in 2005 Lugar worked with a junior senator from Illinois to pass a bill to prevent the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
That Illinois senator, Barack Obama, used the passage of that bill in a commercial when he ran for president four years ago.
Fast forward to this campaign season… Here’s an advertisement run by Lugar’s Republican primary challenger.
Richard Mourock is the state treasurer of Indiana and a Tea Party favorite. According to a poll from last Friday, he’s now opened up a big lead over Lugar. Mourdock’s campaign did not respond to repeated interview requests for this story.
Greg Fettig did. Fettig is active in the Indiana Tea Party and co-founder of the group “Hoosiers for a Conservative Senate.” His group’s goal: get rid of Richard Lugar.
“I personally voted for him for five times, but I will not a sixth time,” Fetig said.
Fettig ticks off a litany of reasons Lugar has to go: The senator has served too long in office, has drifted too far to the left, and Lugar has worked with Obama.
“You’re helping someone that doesn’t espouse the same views as we do. The senator would call that bipartisanship, and it’s not. It doesn’t work that way anymore,” Fettig said.
Fettig criticized Lugar for being one of 13 Republican senators to break party ranks two years ago and vote for the New START treaty with Russia. Under that, the United State and Russia agreed to dramatically cut down their nuclear stockpiles.
Fettig said it's a bill drafted with the cold war in mind.
“We’re 30 years past that point. And it doesn’t address North Korea, it doesn’t address China, it doesn’t address Iran. So if we cut down our arsenal, we become weakened," Fetiig said.
Fettig is confident Lugar’s primary challenger will stay true to his word and not reach across the aisle. Mourdock’s web site plainly reads: “Richard Mourdock does not support Barack Obama.”
At a campaign event in South Bend, Ind., Lugar scoffed at the notion that he shouldn't work with President Obama on foreign policy issues.
“I think it’s a very unreasonable suggestion, and as a matter of fact, not a very patriotic suggestion,” he said. “Each one of us had better be able to talk to everybody in our own country, other countries on behalf of our service personnel, of boots on the ground, on behalf of peace with people. If persons want to run for office indicating under no circumstances will they ever talk to a hostile president, or a hostile whoever, that’s their business. But that wouldn’t be a very exemplary service to Indiana or to the country.”
There was a time, when many Republicans talked like Richard Lugar. Toward the end the 19th century, a class of Republican leaders viewed foreign affairs as being above politics. That didn’t mean blind obedience. But foreign policy was seen as a calling that demanded service to the president, regardless of party affiliation.
This attitude began to change around 1980.
“I think 1980 was a marker for a lot of changes in American politics,” said Marjorie Hershey, a political scientist at Indiana University in Bloomington. “Change in the nature of the Republican party, that later generated change in the nature of the Democratic party, change in the media as we began to see a much bigger increase in cable, and various other segmented media and new media.”
Hershey said all of these factors have led to today’s extreme polarization. She worries when she hears tea party supporters say there can be no working with President Obama on foreign policy matters. She said the only way to make the system work is through compromise.
“Or else you have to find some way of subduing the interests that don’t agree with you. Frankly I think that’s an anti-democratic, with a small d, philosophy. There’s nothing the matter with compromise.”
But should Republicans compromise with the president on foreign policy matters, if they fundamentally disagree with him?
“I’ve always personally believed in the water’s edge view of foreign policy, that is, we’ve got to present a united face to the world as much as we can,” said Mitch Daniels, the popular Republican governor of Indiana.
Daniels is endorsing Richard Lugar. The two men have deep personal ties. Daniels said when it comes to foreign policy, Republicans should be the “loyal opposition.”
“My reading is that Senator Lugar has differed strongly with the president on a number of grounds and said so, but he’s done it in a civilized way and not always in a very public way. But, no, I think folks should reflect further on the importance of our speaking with one voice internationally,” Daniels said.
Lugar is trying to remind his party base that he has disagreed with the president. On Lugar’s campaign website there’s a national security section. There’s no mention of working with Obama to reduce weapons of mass destruction.
Lugar does, however, criticize the president’s policies in Afghanistan. And Lugar faults the president for not getting Congressional approval for actions in Libya.
At the campaign stop in South Bend, Lugar emphasized that the two men see the world very differently and are no longer working together.
“The last time I’ve had really any consultation with the president was in the situation room prior to our working in Libya as a country. I had different views than those of the president or the administration. I appreciate being heard, but obviously my advice was not followed," Lugar said. "And for a variety of reasons, I have not been subsequently summoned to the situation room or to any other room.”
Many of Lugar’s critics suggest he’s running away from his record of bipartisanship to get re-elected. On Tuesday, we’ll know if that strategy worked.