Sunday, May 15, 2011

The NYT talked to Dick Lugar and they want you to know that he seemed like a really nice guy

There's one thing conspicuously missing in this NYT profile of Dick Lugar's battle against a more-conservative primary challenger. The Times casts Lugar as moderate Republican pushing back against the excesses of Tea Party conservatism. Unfortunately, the Times forgets to add concrete examples of Lugar's moderation.

Let's break it down:
Many of his positions dovetail with the Tea Party agenda; he has sponsored a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution and argues for the need to reduce military spending and restructure entitlement programs to reduce the deficit.*

But Tea Party groups complain about his sponsorship of the Dream Act, which would have created a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants who are students or military veterans. They disapprove of his votes for President Obama’s Supreme Court nominees and for the bank bailout of 2008. In the criticism most puzzling to him, they disapprove of his pushing for a new strategic arms reduction treaty on nuclear disarmament.
So in the not-so-moderate column, he supports a balanced budget amendment, which is literally the craziest and furthest-right budget plan currently extant in Congress.

In the he's-a-moderate-no-really-we-swear column, we have his sponsorship of the DREAM Act. But about that: Lugar withdrew his backing of the DREAM Act as soon as he got a primary challenger. Considering this is literally the first piece of evidence that the Times marshals to prove Lugar's moderate bona fides, isn't his recent abandonment of the law sort of an important fact? The Times doesn't think so, neglecting to mention this anywhere in its profile.

Then there is Lugar's vote for the TARP bailout. But check out the vote breakdown for TARP. If you scroll down a little bit you can see a list of people who voted "Nay" and therefore against Lugar. There's 25 of them, including nine Democrats and socialist Bernie Sanders. Meanwhile, on the "Yea" side you have moderate shrinking violets like the Johns Cornyn and Kyl.

So that leaves us with Lugar's votes for two Supreme Court justices and New START. Is that all it takes to be a moderate these days? Voting for the opposition's judicial nominees -- something that, as recently as a few decades ago, was done as a matter of course -- and supporting the extension of a treaty originally negotiated by George H.W. Bush?

There's another metric we can use: in the current Congress, Lugar has voted with Republicans 99% of the time. In the last one, he voted with his party 82% of the time. For comparison, that puts him in the same neighborhood as Jim DeMint and Rand Paul.

Here's the thing: I don't doubt that Lugar is a moderate in some respects. Even I suspect that, deep down inside, the guy is more reasonable than the vast majority of his colleagues. And certainly, for him, the important thing is that the Tea Party thinks he's a moderate and wants to topple him because of it.

But where it really matters -- casting votes -- Lugar is often impossible distinguish from the hardcore base of the Republican party. A no vote against the health care bill doesn't count for more if it comes from a Tea Partier instead of Dick Lugar. When the Times talks about Lugar's moderation, what they're actually talking about is his temperament, not his voting record. It's a very important distinction, and it's one that gets elided all too often. And that's deeply problematic, because the political media establishment idealizes compromise and centrism, and as a consequence also idealizes people like Lugar who want to cast themselves in that mold. But focusing your reporting on a politician's public persona means you're ignoring the single most important feature of his political existence: not how much he hums and haws about wanting to find a compromise, not how long he sits on the fence before choosing a side, and not how chummy he gets with politicians of a different stripe, but where he votes when the chips are down.

*Note how the NYT describes "reductions in military spending" as part of the Tea Party agenda, so you know immediately that they're talking about the hypothetical media version of the Tea Party as an ideologically distinct movement of conservative libertarians, as opposed to the real life version of the Tea Party, where it's the right wing of the Republican party and believes all the same things that mainstream Republicans do, just more so.

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