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Lugar Offers Obsolete Shouts In An Era of Parliamentary-Style Partisanship

Here’s some of Richard Lugar’s striking, if a bit petulant, statement after badly losing the Indiana primary for Senate to State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, who challenged him from the right:

If Mr. Mourdock is elected, I want him to be a good Senator. But that will require him to revise his stated goal of bringing more partisanship to Washington. He and I share many positions, but his embrace of an unrelenting partisan mindset is irreconcilable with my philosophy of governance and my experience of what brings results for Hoosiers in the Senate. In effect, what he has promised in this campaign is reflexive votes for a rejectionist orthodoxy and rigid opposition to the actions and proposals of the other party. His answer to the inevitable roadblocks he will encounter in Congress is merely to campaign for more Republicans who embrace the same partisan outlook. He has pledged his support to groups whose prime mission is to cleanse the Republican party of those who stray from orthodoxy as they see it.

This is not conducive to problem solving and governance. And he will find that unless he modifies his approach, he will achieve little as a legislator. Worse, he will help delay solutions that are totally beyond the capacity of partisan majorities to achieve. The most consequential of these is stabilizing and reversing the Federal debt in an era when millions of baby boomers are retiring. There is little likelihood that either party will be able to impose their favored budget solutions on the other without some degree of compromise.

Let me say that I think Lugar is mostly wrong, and that his belief system on display here represents a complete lack of understanding of the current partisan era. It’s not that compromise isn’t, in a Presidential system with veto points and the potential for divided government, the only way to make progress or even to merely avert disasters. It’s that Lugar claims to represent a party that no longer believes that. They have decided that partisanship is an end in itself and there’s no reason to need to compromise to be effective. As Mourdock, the victor in this race, said today, “I have a mindset that says bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”

Furthermore, there’s nothing actually wrong with that. Politics should be a battle of competing ideas. There’s no problem with a set of stark choices for an electorate, which then gets to decide among those choices. That’s basically how most Parliamentary systems work. The problem arises from trying to put a Parliamentary mindset on a Presidential system. That creates policy paralysis, and a real impossibility of governing. This is what we’ve seen in 2011 and 2012, and what we’ll continue to see as long as we have the same governmental process rules that make a Parliamentary-style partisan rigidity impossible.

There are only two options from this point; there’s not going to be any going back to a mythical halcyon era of bipartisanship and common purpose. Either Democrats concede more and more ground, and Republicans get reinforced on the idea that their ideological rigidity works well for them, or the system changes so it can allow the party in control to institute their agenda, and allow voters to hold that party accountable for the results they produce.

I’m not sure that the latter option is entirely likely, but unless it happens, the prescription for the future is a continued shift to the right, which has basically happened for the last 30 years.

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David Dayen

David Dayen