I doubt that the average American is pondering the political death of Dick Lugar. Heck, most might think "Dick Lugar" sounds like the name of the hero of a spy novel.
But what happened to Lugar last week is a sign of the polarization that cripples Washington and is likely to impede rational governance no matter who wins the White House in November.
The six-term Republican senator from Indiana was knocked off in a primary for a number of reasons. But what really fueled his landslide defeat at the hands of a tea-party insurgent was this fundamental fact: He occasionally had the temerity to work with Democrats.
That's basically the way government was once supposed to work. The quaint terms for it are bipartisanship and compromise, which appear to have gone the way of the compact disc.
Lugar devoted decades to the bipartisan issue of nuclear disarmament. In doing so, he worked with Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia during the '90s and, around six years ago, with a Democratic Illinois senator named Barack Obama.
Lugar had a 77 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, but that's an F on today's litmus test. The Club for Growth, a well-heeled group that likes to knock off Republican incumbents deemed insufficiently pure, told GOP primary voters that "Dick Lugar might be a statesman, but he's not a conservative."
That line from a radio ad tells us plenty about today's rancid political culture. It's now a liability to be tagged a statesman. There's apparently no room in the Senate for someone who sees beyond his own party's trench.
The preferred Senate denizen is someone like Richard Mourdock, Lugar's successful challenger, who says the problem in Washington these days is — seriously — "too much bipartisanship." Which is like saying the typical big-city rush hour suffers from insufficient congestion.
Mourdock's rise and Lugar's demise are symptoms of a looming crisis of governance. Indeed, Lugar joins a lengthening list of mainstream-Republican exiles who know that one occasionally has to cut deals to get things done — Chuck Hagel, Lincoln Chafee, Olympia Snowe, and so on. Maine's Snowe, who is retiring from the Senate and blasting her GOP brethren on the way out, said this week: "There has to be tolerance for varying views if you want to become the majority party in this country and sustain that majority. I think we have to demonstrate that we have the ability to govern ... and not just engage in ideological absolutes."
Yes, I'm well aware that Democrats are at fault, too. But I won't claim a false equivalence.
Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, the nation's most prominent analysts of Senate behavior, also refuse to play that game. As the storm clouds darkened over Lugar, they warned that "divided government has produced something closer to complete gridlock than we have ever seen in our time in Washington." Their time has spanned more than 40 years, long enough to know which party deserves the brunt of blame:
"In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country's challenges."
In the gutters
Mourdock celebrated knocking off Lugar by offering his treatise on governance: "Bipartisanship ought to consist of Democrats coming to the Republican point of view." That is delusional, as any Democratic fantasy of Republican surrender would be. But that's the operative mentality, which is why Mann and Ornstein believe "Washington's ideological divide will probably grow after the 2012 elections."
If Obama wins, his ideological congressional foes will treat him with the same disrespect as before, and he will also be a lame duck. And if Mitt Romney wins, his ostensible ideological allies will dog him mercilessly, forever on the alert for apostasy, while the vanquished Democrats thirst for payback.
It's enough to make us yearn for Dwight Eisenhower, the Republican president who said: "Things are not all black and white. There have to be compromises. The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters."
Ike was lucky he never had to run in a modern Republican primary.
Dick Polman's column appears in the opinion pages on alternate Fridays and in Currents on alternate Sundays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @dickpolman1.