Once upon a time, summertime was camp-meeting time all over Indiana, but now not quite so much. Nevertheless, it’s a season for politicians to hit the sawdust trail in search of something that passes for the old-time religion. Judgment Day is at hand.
You could ask Dick Lugar, still the Eagle Scout at 79 and the senior Republican senator back home again in Indiana. He has been untouchable since he went to the Senate from City Hall in Indianapolis in 1977. He’s up for re-election next year.
Only yesterday, he took pride in being Barack Obama’s favorite Republican. And why wouldn’t he be? Three weeks before the ‘08 presidential election, he all but endorsed Mr. Obama. The Democratic candidate had revealed how naive he was when he talked of wanting to sit down with the bad guys of the world to talk about peace, love and what a wonderful world it would be when lions lie down with lambs without eating them. Mr. Obama imagined he could charm Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran with honeyed talk of hope and change. Mr. Lugar, the only Republican saint in the Senate, loved it.
“He correctly cautions against the implication that hostile nations must be dealt with almost exclusively through isolation or military force,” the senator said of Mr. Obama. “In some cases, refusing to talk can even be dangerous.” Mr. Lugar, who fancies himself as knowing more about foreign affairs than almost anyone else, cited North Korea as a shining diplomatic success. He predicted that Syria and Iran would be the next success stories if only the Republicans would listen to the wisdom of the messiah from Chicago.
Such talk in the homestretch of the presidential campaign didn’t make Mr. Lugar the prince of the party, but soon made him a prophet without honor among conservatives, of whom Indiana has plenty. He later gave President Obama a grade of A for his first few months in office.
Not to worry, or so he thought. He was sitting on a campaign chest of $2.3 million and basking in the hosannas of the New York Times and others of the “elites” who can’t imagine why everyone doesn’t think the way they do.
Then along came the tea party, shuffling the deck in a way that Mr. Lugar and the A-student president couldn’t have imagined, the emergence of a movement of voters who decline to tug their forelocks and say “thank you” for the guidance of their betters. Such ignorance. Such effrontery. John Danforth, the former senator from Missouri who has never gotten over himself, either, has been driven within an inch of despair. “If Dick Lugar,” he says, “having served five terms in the U.S. Senate and being the most respected person in the Senate and the leading authority on foreign policy, is seriously challenged by anybody in the Republican Party, we have gone so far overboard that we are beyond redemption.” This was an odd remark from a man who was once the Episcopal priest The Washington Post called “St. Jack.”
The “most respected person in the U.S. Senate” couldn’t understand why any right-thinking person wouldn’t agree with his support for more arms treaties with the Russians and more restrictions on the right of Americans to own guns, his eagerness to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell,” his votes for Obama economic schemes, his opposition to a Republican moratorium on earmarks and his votes to confirm Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court.
But now, just in time for the 2012 election campaign, he’s grading President Obama on a steeper curve. No more A’s. When Al Hunt of Bloomberg News asked him the other day how he now grades the president, he replied: “I think at best a C.” He’s skeptical of the president’s insistence that the bombing of Libya is not really meant to get rid of Moammar Gadhafi, only to persuade him to be a nice guy. He has softened his once-withering criticism of tea party conservatives.
Richard Mourdock, the Republican state treasurer who announced a primary challenge in February, is a tea party favorite but he is careful about sounding rude and impolite. He wants to save Mr. Lugar from an embarrassing exit. “I don’t think any Hoosier, and this includes myself, wants to see the last image of Sen. Lugar’s career being a concession speech,” he says. “We really do have great respect for him. But I hear it 500 times a day; people come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for running,’ and two words: ‘It’s time.’ “
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.