The primary result was not unexpected, and I think the right lesson to draw from the loss is simply: quit before you get fired. Lugar was an eighty-year-old, seven-term Senator known for being a statesman. The kinds of Senators who can comfortably expect to be carried out in a box are those who are whirlwinds of constituent service who move comfortably with the ideological times – guys like Strom Thurmond and Robert Byrd. Lugar wasn’t really cut from that mold.
Murdock benefitted from the anti-incumbent sentiment that sweeps through the country in times of discontent. But it’s a mistake to think that he would be an ideological purist of any sort. What Murdock has made clear is that he’d be more of a partisan than Lugar was. So, had he been sitting in the Senate when TARP or Medicare Part D or No Child Left Behind were up for a vote (all initiatives of a Republican Administration), there’s every reason to believe that Murdock would have voted the way the party leadership wanted him to – that is to say: in favor. But he’d be less-likely than Lugar to work on high-minded bi-partisan initiatives of one sort or another. Whether that’s a loss or a gain depends greatly on whether you think such initiatives are generally productive or generally pointless.
Because of its structure, the Senate needs a certain number of statesmen; when it gets too partisan, it simply ceases to function. That’s not some natural law of politics – it’s not even true of the House of Representatives. It’s a function of Senate rules and traditions. For that reason, I agree that trading a Lugar for a Murdock is something of a loss for governance. Even more so, the loss of a voice of reason in foreign affairs – which, on balance, Lugar was – is a real loss for the country, though honestly I don’t know how much of a difference Lugar really made.
But, not to put too fine a point on it, you need new voices, new statesmen, not just old ones. The old statesmen can become too invested in that self-image to actually engage in statesmanship. Lugar was a reliable partisan on the Iraq War, for example, until quite late in the day. Compare his position to that of, say, Democrat Bob Graham, hardly left-winger or an anti-interventionist, who was forceful in his opposition, and imagine what an impact Lugar might have had if he had engaged in a little bi-partisanship in that instance. It would undoubtedly have cost him his seat. But he lost that anyway, and what has he done with his last term?
Speaking of which: one of things Lugar is best known for is the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat-Reduction Program, which funds the decommissioning of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons systems and the retraining of scientists involved in that work. Well, the last time I mentioned Senator Lugar on this blog, I got a lengthy email from a reader involved in the biological weapons portion of Nunn-Lugar, who was absolutely scathing on what a boondoggle it has become – not only wasting money, but potentially being quite counter-productive, creating public health threats where none previously existed, and functioning essentially without any meaningful oversight (in the sense of somebody assessing whether individual programs are serving the program objective effectively). One of the risks with high-minded programs like these is that the people most interested in the programs – the creators and original sponsors – have minimal incentive to provide real oversight, while those with the strongest incentive to be critical in their assessments are those with ideological reasons to oppose the programs in the first place. All of which is to say: you need to get new blood in that isn’t vested in their elders’ achievements, but you want that new blood to actually care about governing the country and not just scoring points off the other team.