Senator Lugar a moderate? Not by a long shot.
Saying “no” to women’s rights
Throughout his career Lugar has consistently voted against women’s access to reproductive health in lockstep with his fellow Republicans, tightening and in some cases banning access to abortion and birth control. And Lugar voted for last spring’s controversial “Blunt Amendment,” which would have allowed employers to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s coverage requirements if they had a “moral objection” to birth control.
He has also blocked efforts to close the gender gap in workers’ pay. In 2007, the Supreme Court sharply limited the ability of women to seek redress for longstanding discrimination in pay, holding that a lawsuit must be brought promptly after the initial discriminatory decision. The court protected employers who, not challenged on their initial discriminatory decision, continued to pay women less than equal wages in the years and decades of employment that followed the original act of bias.
In 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act legislatively overruled the Supreme Court decision, and made continuing instances of unequal pay matters for which victims could get redress. When it came up for consideration in the Senate, Lugar, along with all but four of his Republican colleagues voted against the measure, which nevertheless won passage.
A companion bill to the Fair Pay Act was the Paycheck Fairness Act, which quickly cleared the House but stalled in the Senate. “The act had enforcement of equal pay, and training programs that would help women break into jobs that have better pay and benefits,” Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, explained. Solid Republican opposition, including from Senator Lugar, defeated two Democratic attempts to bring the measure to a vote.
In an earlier episode, Lugar opposed the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act. It required employers with 50 or more employees to offer limited periods of paid leave for new mothers and fathers, and for parents of ill children. The bill passed on a bipartisan basis, with 16 Republican votes, but Senator Lugar voted against the measure.
Saying “no” to limits on executive power in foreign relations
In the area of foreign policy, Senator Lugar has broken with his party on some matters, forging, for example, bipartisan legislation to dismantle nuclear weapons in the former Soviet states in the 1990s.
But Lugar was one of President Reagan’s staunchest foreign policy supporters, most notably in connection with the former president’s Central America policies. As head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Lugar played a key role in enabling U.S. aid to the military in El Salvador and the Nicaraguan Contras.
In the early 1980s, Lugar resisted congressional demands for certification that the government of El Salvador was respecting the human rights of its own citizens (and investigating deaths of Americans on its soil) as a requisite to receiving aid. “Certification as a condition of military aid to El Salvador was a mild, mild condition,” explained Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center. “Lugar opposed it on the grounds that it tied the hands of the president.”
Regarding Nicaragua, Lugar worked to hold together a core of Republicans and conservative Democrats to maintain a congressional majority to support Reagan’s efforts to undermine the Sandinista government. When direct U.S. involvement in Nicaragua came to light — after the CIA mined the country’s harbors against the Sandinistas without congressional approval — then-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) threatened to quit the Intelligence Committee. According to William LeoGrande, Dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University, and a specialist in Latin American politics, had that happened, the coalition Reagan needed would have splintered. Lugar was able to contain the disaster by convincing Moynihan to stay.
A few years later, Lugar intervened yet again to shield President Reagan and his Central America agenda. John Kerry, then newly elected to the Senate, had proposed Foreign Relations Committee hearings to investigate CIA involvement with the Contras in drug trafficking. As Professor LeoGrande explained, Lugar successfully squelched the effort (although he didn’t block Kerry’s independent report).
“I think Lugar’s policy positions aren’t dramatically different today than they were in the past,” Professor LeoGrande said. “There’s no doubt that he’s a conservative, he’s always been a conservative.”
Not only the most conservative Senator is properly called a “conservative”
The National Journal, which creates an annual index of the most conservative lawmakers based on their voting records each year, gave Lugar a “Conservative score” of 67.5 (out of 100) for 2011. While lower than most Republicans, Lugar scored higher than ten Republican Senators, and much higher than any Senate Democrat. The average score for Democrats, in fact, was 26.2.
In its lifetime score for Lugar, the American Conservative Union, a political lobbying organization, gives him a 77.02 rating. That ranks him closer to South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint, whose score is 98.77, than Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, whose rating is 48.59.
Barney Keller, communications director at the Club for Growth, said he is dissatisfied with Lugar’s performance because, in his organization’s view, Lugar did not take a conservative position all or nearly all of the time. Nevertheless, Keller acknowledged that Lugar, “Votes with conservatives all the time.” In Keller’s mind the problem isn’t that many of Lugar’s votes weren’t conservative, just that they are routinely conservative and ought to be taken for granted. “Voting to repeal Obamacare and in favor of the Keystone pipeline, every conservative votes for those things.”
Geoffrey Kabaservice is a historian and author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, from Eisenhower to the Tea Party. “Lugar may have known the importance of politicians being reasonable with each other, but he wasn’t going to waste any of his political capital on shrinking from the party line,” Kabaservice said. “He was going to be a foot soldier for the Republican Party. I don’t think any real moderates saw him as a moderate.”
“You wouldn’t look to Lugar as a champion of moderate Republicanism,” Kabaservice added, “because he would disappoint you most of the time.”
This article was modified on May 21, 2012 to replace the phrase “pure conservative position 100 percent of the time” (in the paragraph third from the end) with “conservative posittion all or nearly all of the time.”