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Tea Party Victory, Global Defeat

CANBERRA – You wouldn’t expect much interest beyond the United States, or even beyond his own state, when an 80-year-old conservative legislator, who has already served six terms, loses his party’s endorsement to run yet again. But the crushing defeat of Senator Richard Lugar in the recent Indiana Republican primary, in a Tea Party-supported campaign of shocking mindlessness, has reverberated in capitals around the world, including my own.

On most issues, Lugar is and always has been a natural conservative. In recent times, he opposed all of President Barack Obama’s major domestic legislation, including the economic stimulus package, health-care reform, and financial-services regulation, and has consistently supported anti-abortion legislation. With his 36-year record in the US Senate, national stature, and essentially conservative constituency, he would certainly have won again in November. But none of this was persuasive enough for Indiana primary voters, who backed his rival, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, by an astonishing 20-point margin.

The problem for Lugar was two-fold. First, he was of the old school that instinctively embraced compromise across party lines in the Senate on crucial issues, in order to avoid the kind of gridlock that is always potentially endemic in a presidential system (unlike a parliamentary one), where the elected executive has no guaranteed majority in the legislature. If party lines are strictly maintained, US presidents may be unable to pass any legislation at all, or to make any judicial or other senior appointments.

Lugar, for example, had voted to confirm Obama’s Supreme Court nominations. Mourdock’s position, by contrast, was that, “Bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view.”