Evan Bayh: Profiles in Partisanship

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Profiles in Courage,”John F. Kennedy wrote admiringly of U.S. senators who put the national interest ahead of partisanship, ideological purity and regional parochialism. Many sacrificed their careers because of their stands, but Kennedy held them aloft as examples to be emulated for their moral courage, intellectual independence and public candor.

Judging by Sen. Richard Lugar‘s defeat in the Indiana Republican primary last week, today’s most partisan voters would give the book an unfavorable review.

Lugar served the people of Indiana in the U.S. Senate for 36 years. My father was a colleague of his for four years, and I served with him for another 12. My father and I saw the world differently from Sen. Lugar in many respects, and we often voted differently. But Lugar is a statesman in the best sense of the word. He was thoughtful, civil and willing to find common ground when doing so served the best interests of our nation.

Those characteristics made him a great senator, but they also turned him into a soon-to-be ex-senator last Tuesday when he was soundly defeated in his Republican primary by the tea party-backed Indiana Treasurer Richard Mourdock. Lugar was undone by the antithesis of what Kennedy so admired.

At a time when gridlock and hyperpartisanship are destroying Americans’ trust in government and preventing action on even our most pressing challenges, Mourdock advocates for less consensus building and more ideological rigidity. He says “the time for being collegial is past — it’s time for confrontation” and that bipartisanship “ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”

This intransigent approach is a great one for primary electorates that demand more combativeness and ideological purity from candidates than ever before. And if we had a parliamentary form of government with no checks and balances where the majority always rules, it might work. But it’s a terrible prescription for America, where divided government is often the norm.

Pick any problem facing our country. Our flawed tax code. Our broken immigration system. The fact that we need to create more jobs and spend less money.

Solving any of these big challenges will require at least some support from both parties. No matter what happens in 2012, neither party will likely have the power to unilaterally ram through its agenda in the near future, but both parties will retain enough power to obstruct the other side — especially with 60 votes becoming the de facto threshold for most anything passing the Senate.

Staunch partisans and unyielding ideologues seem to think that if they are uncompromising enough for long enough, that they’ll eventually get enough power to do what they want. But while they’re busy trying to build a utopia, America is stuck dealing with problems that need to be solved right now.

This unyielding approach to governance not only prevents progress, it makes matters worse. For example, ideologues on the right object to any increase in government revenue. Those on the far left abhor any change to entitlements. Our deficits and debt become unsustainable. When the crisis comes as it already has in Europe and inevitably will in the U.S. — taxes must be raised and programs cut by much more than if compromise had prevailed. Paradoxically, extremism ensures the very result it seeks to prevent and the nation suffers.

Lugar understood there is another way. He knew it was possible to be principled and bipartisan. He is a proud conservative — with a 77 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union and a voting record that was supportive of President Ronald Reagan‘s positions more than any other U.S. senator.

But Lugar also worked with Democrats to safeguard loose nuclear materials in post-Soviet Russia. He took bold bipartisan votes to rescue the American financial system and save the American auto industry even when it was unpopular. And he upheld the long-standing tradition that Democratic and Republican presidents should have the right to appoint qualified jurists from their own party to the federal bench.

In short, Lugar is one of the dwindling number of people who could actually make the Senate work. Now that he and several other Senate moderates of both parties will be departing, American voters — left, right and center — have to resolve a major disconnect between what we say we want from our politicians and who we actually vote for.

In poll after poll, Americans say they want our leaders to work together to solve problems. But we are also increasingly sending rigid ideological politicians toWashington, D.C., who won’t work together. In fact, congressional voting is now more polarized than it has been at any time since the 1890s.

If Americans want solutions, we have to start electing leaders who will deliver them, even if it means bucking party orthodoxy.

Despite last Tuesday’s primary results in Indiana, there are signs that Americans are finally starting to turn away from hyperpartisans in both parties. A recent Gallup poll found that more American voters now identify as independents than at any time in recent history. And grass-roots organizations like No Labels are providing a voice for the growing numbers of Americans who are demanding problem-solving over point-scoring from their leaders.

Lugar’s primary loss is indeed a sad day for Indiana and for America. But his defeat can and should be a wake-up call for the vast majority of Americans who have had it with the constant partisan warfare. This November, let us remember that compromise is not synonymous with betrayal or independence a weakness. Let us reward candidates who put country ahead of party and progress before ideological orthodoxy. Above all, let us look for candidates with the character to write new profiles in courage. Americans will benefit greatly from this sequel.

(Cross-posted, with permission of the author, from the Chicago Tribune)


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