Senator Lugar a moderate? Not by a long shot.

Story Repair | By Heather Rogers |

May 18, 2012 — Last week, six-term Republican Senator Richard G. Lugar was defeated in the Indiana primary by Richard Mourdock, the current state treasurer. During the campaign, Mourdock, who was backed by the Tea Party faction of the GOP, challenged Lugar’s record as a conservative, claiming in a political advertisement, “When Dick Lugar moved to Washington, he left behind his conservative Hoosier values.”


In this feature, we select a story that appeared in one or more major news outlets and try to show how a different set of inquiries or observations could have produced a more illuminating article.

This repair was prompted by a series of stories last week about six-term Indiana Senator Richard Lugar losing in the Republican primary to Richard Mourdock. Mourdock had challenged Lugar from the right. A common theme in the articles was that Senator Lugar had been a “moderate” in the Senate.

For example, one New York Times story declared Lugar to be a “collegial moderate who personified a gentler political era,” and another piece in The Times declared as a factual matter that Lugar was “a Republican so moderate that even [Democratic] leaders admitted that plenty of Democrats liked him.”

For us, the stories raised red flags about the ongoing problem of many journalists inside the Beltway chasing the Holy Grail of “bipartisanship,” “compromise,” and a “sensible center,” and allowing anything to the right of where most Democrats stand to be given the “moderate” label. It is a practice that has allowed ever-more conservative positions to be misclassified in that way.

It turns out, as this repair shows, that the label of moderate as applied to Senator Lugar is a figment of journalistic imagination.

Because there was so much to repair in connection with this fundamental mischaracterization, this repair does not attempt to treat other elements of the stories (such as the variety of reasons for Richard Mourdock’s victory or whether there are broader implications of the result). 


In the wake of Lugar’s defeat, prominent Democrats, including President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joseph Biden, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) mourned his loss. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) praised Luger’s bipartisanship, saying that Lugar was “a class act and a gentleman.”

Over his 36-year term, there were, in fact, instances when Senator Lugar bucked his party. In the 1980s, for example, he was part of a Senate effort, opposed by most Republicans, to impose economic sanctions on apartheid South Africa. More recently, Lugar was one of only a handful of Senate Republicans who voted to confirm President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. He co-sponsored the DREAM Act, a measure strongly opposed by most Republicans that is designed to provide a path to permanent residency for children of illegal immigrants.
But the fondness for Lugar from top Senate Democrats notwithstanding, even a cursory examination of his record demonstrates that Lugar stymied those Democrats time and time again, standing firmly in line with the majority of his Republican colleagues. In countless key votes — on issues ranging from fiscal policy to healthcare to women’s rights — Lugar’s stance was deeply and consistently conservative, as that term is conventionally used in the modern American political context.


Saying “no” to fiscal stimulus

In February 2009, the economy was in a precarious state, having shed 2.3 million jobs in the preceding three months. President Obama introduced the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. The $787 billion plan — characterized as insufficiently robust by, among others, Obama economic advisor Christina Romer and progressive economists Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman and Dean Baker — combined tax cuts and government spending on public works projects, education, health care, energy and technology to try to jumpstart the economy. Obama’s bill — funded at a level midway between those on his left demanding a much larger stimulus, between $1.25 trillion and $2 trillion, and those on his right rejecting stimulus altogether — passed the Senate by a vote of 61 to 37. Three Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the bill, but Lugar was among the overwhelming majority of Republicans voting “no.”


Saying “no” to extending unemployment benefits…unless Bush tax cuts extended, too

The Bush-era tax cuts were scheduled to expire automatically at the end of 2010. There was bipartisan agreement that tax cuts applicable to middle class families should be extended, but President Obama had promised that he would not let the tax cuts for the wealthy continue. Democrats proposed a tax cut extension for all except that portion of family income in excess of $250,000.

At the same time, two other measures were, according to Democrats, desperately needed: the first, prompted by the continuing crisis of high unemployment, was an extension of long-term unemployment benefits. The second was a cut in the payroll tax. Many considered these moves as at least modest elements of additional fiscal stimulus.

The GOP position was to refuse a vote on either an extension of unemployment or a reduction in the payroll tax unless Democrats relented and renewed tax cuts for the wealthy. Lugar joined his fellow Republicans in that filibuster, and was ultimately successful when President Obama gave in to GOP pressure.

Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist with the liberal Economic Policy Institute, said, “A decision to deny unemployment benefits to Americans who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own, or to block a payroll tax cut” — the latter being a proposal that Republicans have favored for years — “all to ensure that the wealthiest Americans keep receiving a disproportionate amount of tax relief, however you may characterize it on the merits, is surely not a ‘moderate’ stand.”

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