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Wednesday, May 9, 2012, 3:51 pm

Lugar’s Loss in Indiana: the Death of Nuance in the GOP

By Theo Anderson

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) leaves a press conference following the passage of the START treaty in December 2010).
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images News)

It’s a truism that Richard Mourdock’s victory over Richard Lugar on Tuesday, in the Indiana primary to select the GOP’s candidate for the Senate, was a blow to bipartisanship in Washington. Mourdock campaigned as a politician who disdains compromise, and his assault on Lugar as a moderate made him a Tea Party favorite.

But it will make little difference in the Senate’s voting patterns if Indiana replaces Lugar with Mourdock in November, because Lugar, despite his reputation, has never been much of a moderate.

The website ProgressivePunch, which tracks Congressional voting records, gives Lugar a lifetime “progressive score” of 14 percent overall and just seven percent on crucial votes. And Lugar’s progressive score ranks among the worst when Indiana’s political makeup is factored into his voting record. (ProgressivePunch gives more progressive points to a politician who represents a red state but votes for progressive causes. For example, Democrat Tim Johnson ranks higher by this formula than he does in absolute terms, because he represents South Dakota, a deeply red state. Lugar’s relative rank, by contrast, is much lower than his absolute rank—85 versus 62.) 

Yet Lugar’s defeat will make a difference in ways that can’t be captured by voting tallies. He was often mistaken for a moderate because of his soft-spoken manner and his willingness to hear his opponents out. Mourdock’s victory wasn’t so much the rejection of a moderate voting record as the rejection of a moderate style. Republican voters chose a more aggressive, hard-edged approach to politics. And that shift in style has implications for legislation and public policy that go far beyond just how politicians vote.

Take the issue of climate change. On Tuesday, Stanford University’s Woods Institute for the Environment released the results of a poll showing that Americans' support for taking action to address climate change has dropped 10 points over the past two years—from 72 percent to 62 percent. “The drop was concentrated,” according to the report, “among Americans who distrust climate scientists, even more so among such people who identify themselves as Republicans.”

What’s driving the decline? A recent analysis, published in the journal Climate Change, shows that politicians’ votes and their rhetoric are among the most important shapers of public opinion on the issue. And while Lugar and Mourdock are about equally likely to vote against positive environmental legislation, Mourdock is much more likely to aggressively, vocally deny the science of climate change.

He claims expertise on the subject because he has degrees in geology. Being a geologist translates into expertise on climate change because “those of us who are trained in the sciences look at problems differently,” he told Scientific American. “We are more analytical and less ready to accept what appears to be the obvious answer.” Mourdock’s skepticism and analytical rigor led him to the conclusion that the consensus of climate scientists is all wrong, and that human activity isn’t the cause of global warming.

Mourdock, who was employed for most of his career by oil and coal companies, “believes in creating jobs and economic opportunity by unleashing our Nation’s natural resource potential,” according to his website. That means relying more on oil and coal, of course, and expending no effort at all in addressing the problem of climate change. 

What’s bizarre in all of this is Mourdock’s claim that his own scientific training—in geology—trumps the consensus of climate-change experts worldwide. There is an element of revolutionary fervor and dogma in his stance. As Lugar said in his concession speech on Tuesday night, “Republicans cannot admit to any nuance in policy on climate change.”

Lugar was at least capable of nuance. He also had the good sense to stop talking when he had no idea what he was talking about. That was his greatest virtue. It’s a virtue that is increasingly rare within the GOP, and for that reason, if none other, Lugar will be missed.

Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

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