By BOB BROWN
In the sweltering heat of August in San Diego a stocky and brawny Senator Richard Lugar barreled past me, sweat glistening on his brow, and soaking his T-shirt. He was jogging with several young staffers during a break at the 1996 Republican National Convention. Lugar was 64 then, but his boyish face and muscular conditioning made him appear younger. In fact, he was the embodiment of vitality and energy.
Now Lugar is 80. On television he appears aging and stooped. His fellow Indiana Republicans recently trounced the old gentleman in their primary election. They didn’t toss him out because he was too old, however. They tossed him because he was too old-fashioned.
By his record Lugar was a conservative, but he followed the old Senate custom of sometimes reaching across the center aisle to work with members of the opposition party. In the past, notably in the era of Senate Democratic leader Mike Mansfield and Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen, that is how things in Congress got done. As now, nearly 36 years ago when Lugar entered the Senate, there were sharp philosophical differences between the two political parties. But then, the two sides had mastered the difficult art of reaching out for allies without sacrificing their principles. Today that is a lost art.
Today’s members of Congress are controlled by party ideologues. They dominate or destroy. Professional wrestlers are capable of that. Caged cockatoos are smarter.
Current research shows that for the first time in over a century of record keeping there is not a single congressional Republican who is more liberal than the most conservative Democrat. This would be completely normal in a European parliamentary form of government, where the majority party or coalition must consistently vote in a block, or otherwise trigger a national election.
With separate executive and legislative branches of government, and the legislative branch separated into two houses, our remarkably wise founders gave us a governmental structure that requires compromise. In the American system, even when one political party dominates the separate branches of our government, the reality of checks and balances has kept our great nation from making radical turns in any direction.
Our founders created a system that discourages rule by radicals by forcing compromise. Being unable to overcome the safeguards of the Constitution, today’s partisan puritans have stymied themselves. The pity though, is that in refusing to work together as the Constitution requires, they cannot do the job the American people require.
Whether Democrat or Republican, Lugar’s Senate replacement will likely be far more partisan than Lugar. Sadly, there are few left in Congress who still remember how our system once worked and is supposed to work. With Lugar’s defeat there is one less.
Polls show the American people are sick of self-righteous fanaticism. They want a government that can provide necessary services within a balanced budget. That has never been easy. Philosophies legitimately differ on how that should be accomplished. Our history tells us it can be accomplished, but will require statesmen with the courage to focus on solutions and defy the uncompromising spoilers who may not even want government to function. Lugar was one of the last of the old-fashioned problem solvers, and he paid for it. The people of his state defeated him for compromising, and voted instead for someone who promised them he won’t.
Montanans can look to the Lugar lesson when we vote in June. We can choose the largely untested path of partisan purity, or elect those willing to get back to the tried and true tradition of getting things done.
Bob Brown is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President