- Associated Press - Friday, March 25, 2016

EVANSVILLE, Ind. (AP) - Cynicism and contempt is rampant in American politics today, and the fixes include quality candidates and a more informed electorate, former Sen. Richard Lugar and former Rep. Lee Hamilton said Wednesday.

The two Indiana political icons were at the University of Southern Indiana for a discussion on “Civility in American Politics.” Lugar and Hamilton, a Republican and Democrat who have both received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, said political institutions have withstood the test of time.

Yet, both said they are saddened by deteriorating discourse. They noted the inability of Congress to complete what used to be considered basic tasks, such as passing a budget.

“We’ve just got to lower the political rhetoric, lower the ideological speeches and focus in a very pragmatic way on how to solve the problems,” Hamilton said.

They listed a few reasons for the dysfunction. State legislatures, Lugar said, have drawn congressional districts in such a way to protect incumbents from being ousted by the opposite party.

That, in turn, has meant many representatives’ most serious electoral competition is coming from within their party, from activists hostile to the idea of compromise in Washington.

“Members are afraid of being defeated in a primary if they deviate from the party scorecard,” said Lugar, whose 36-year Senate career was ended by Vanderburgh County resident Richard Mourdock in a 2012 Republican primary. “It has changed the nature of the debate very substantially.”

Lugar and Hamilton also bemoaned what they view as ideological television reporting and the decline of the American print media.

They told a USI student questioner they’re not pleased that so many Americans get news from satire programs. The issues at hand are serious, Lugar said, noting terrorist attacks in Belgium and France as an example.

“It’s very complex to say the least, and this is what the next president is going to have to deal with, or at least appoint people who have the background and knowledge diplomatically or militarily,” Lugar said. “It doesn’t come through in the coverage, in the debate style, social media or what have you … This has not been very helpful in terms of understanding. I hope we are reaching a nadir.”

Hamilton, who represented Indiana’s 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999, said television media “has become less objective” and “there are very few good print newspapers in the country that give you good comprehensive coverage of national and international news. … There is a deterioration of the quality of information.”

Hamilton said greater civility is needed, and it doesn’t have to come at the expense of debating important issues.

“The practice of civility with your friends is easy. The test of civility is to be nice to the person who you don’t like and who hates your guts, with whom you disagree on all the big issues. That’s the test.”

He described civility has being “essential to the both the quality and quantity of work your able to do,” and when mistrust and anger are rampant, “you’re not going to get much done.”

The best and brightest people that universities produce should give consideration to public service, Hamilton said, adding: “Representative democracy is not on automatic pilot.”

Wednesday’s forum on political civility took place amid a Republican presidential primary season that has been most uncivil.

Lugar, a Republican who was in the Senate from 1977-2013, declined to say if he will support front-runner Donald Trump if he secures the nomination. Lugar has made no endorsement during the primary season.

Asked before the forum about Trump’s appeal among Republican primary voters, Lugar said, “He has been able to speak to Americans that feel hurt, who feel that somehow life has not treated them well, whether it be jobs that have been unfair, community situations, fear of immigrants or whatever may be the problem.

“And so in a dramatic way, almost melodramatic, he has attempted to sock it to them - to say these politicians, the presidency, Congress and elsewhere are the cause of all of this and you have to get rid of the whole lot. … He’s very vulgar and impulsive but nevertheless is very popular with people who are feeling this hurt.”

During the forum, Lugar, 83, said Trump’s nearest competitor for the Republican nomination, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, is “one of the most unpopular people who has ever been in the Senate,” but, like Trump, Cruz’s approach is receiving some support.

Hamilton, 84, said the tenor of his party’s nomination fight between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has been “reasonably civil.” Hamilton hasn’t endorsed either candidate.

Clinton, said Hamilton, has “put forth a number very serious proposals that are carefully thought out and responsive to the problem. Not everybody agrees with them and they aren’t perfect by any means, but they are a serious effort to deal with all kinds of difficult problems. I would say Sen. Sanders has done that a little less well. But he, too, has come forward with a lot of proposals. … Sen. Sanders has shown (Clinton) has some vulnerabilities as a candidate, and she will have to address those.”

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Source: Evansville Courier & Press, https://bit.ly/1RCd1NP

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Information from: Evansville Courier & Press, https://www.courierpress.com

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