Indiana Republican shock has big ramifications
If any Australians have not heard of the American state of Indiana, they could certainly be forgiven. Situated between Illinois and Ohio, largely flat and agricultural, the state does not exactly beckon the same throngs of tourists who descend on Florida, New York, or California.
Indianans, often soft-spoken in the midwestern American way, are not at great pains to call attention to themselves. Yet a key vote there this week holds substantial ramifications for the United States and the world. At stake in Indiana's primary vote was the ability of the United States government to conduct an effective foreign policy.
In a shocking decision, Indiana Republicans rejected their own six-term incumbent, Senator Richard Lugar, opting instead to nominate his more conservative challenger, Richard Mourdock. Lugar's long career in Indiana and national politics stretches back to the 1960s, and his 36 years in the US Senate give him a nearly unsurpassed seniority in that house. While veteran senators have been known to lose general elections, their ouster in primary votes has until lately been a very rare event.
Lugar was defeated by a candidate who ran to his right, yet few observers could possibly look at his voting record and deem him anything other than a conservative. Lugar has opposed all of the major domestic legislation of the Obama Administration, including its stimulus package, health-care reform, and financial services regulation. He has also been a reliable vote on anti-abortion legislation. On Obama-era social and economic policy issues, none could plausibly question Lugar's fidelity to either his party or conservative principles.
In one area, however, Lugar showed himself to be consistently independent: the realm of foreign policy. Improbably, the landlocked state of Indiana sent forth in Lugar the Senate's most widely respected voice on international questions, sometimes one at odds with Republican presidents. In the 1980s, he broke with the Reagan administration, helping to pass decisive economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa. His signature achievement came in the early 1990s, when he allied with a Democratic colleague to pass the Nunn-Lugar bill, which funded the dismantling of much of the former Soviet nuclear arsenal.
Lugar embodied the aspirations of Reagan, who envisioned a world without nuclear weapons. This may have been his electoral undoing. In the final months of 2010, Lugar threw his support behind the Obama administration's efforts to secure passage of the New START Treaty. Despite the intermittent tendency of contemporary Republicans to invoke the Cold War in dealing with Russia - two weeks ago, a Romney foreign policy adviser warned ominously of ''Soviet'' activity in the Arctic Ocean - Lugar perceived a continuing need for nuclear disarmament.
''One of those warheads could demolish my city of Indianapolis,'' Lugar declared that autumn. ''Some Americans may have forgotten that, I've not forgotten that.'' His endorsement of New START enabled a number of other Republicans to support the treaty as well, propelling it toward narrow passage.
This choice may have been pivotal in galvanising conservative opposition to Lugar. To be sure, he had made other votes displeasing to the purists of the Tea Party, voting for Bush's bailout of the banks, and to confirm Obama's judicial nominees. The former vote stemmed from party loyalty; the latter followed longstanding Senate precedent on court appointments. Lugar, moreover, was not helped by his age - he turned 80 last month. Finally, it had been some time since Lugar last resided in his home state, allowing his challenger to depict him as out of touch.
In a classic ploy of establishing guilt by association, Mourdock assailed Lugar for collaborating with the President, calling his foe ''Obama's favourite Republican''. He had plenty to work with, as the two had worked together even before Obama's election to the presidency. As two internationally-minded legislators from neighbouring states, it is hard to see how Lugar and Obama could not have come into contact.
Simple maths obligated Lugar to seek legislative allies in both parties, as votes on treaties in the US Senate face a constitutionally mandated two-thirds requirement.
Looking ahead, Lugar's defeat seems an ill omen for American foreign policy. American legislators who involve themselves extensively in foreign affairs inevitably face some charges of neglecting their constituents for far-off concerns. Lugar's stewardship of the New START treaty and his subsequent defeat seem likely to be turned into a cautionary tale for other senators who put the national interest ahead of partisanship.
Given the Senate's high threshold for treaty votes, observers are right to worry about the ability of future presidents to win legislative approval of international commitments, and therefore to deal effectively with the world.
With his defeat, nuclear disarmament, a goal embraced by both major Australian parties, is unlikely to move forward in the near future.
Lugar can at least enter retirement claiming substantial responsibility for helping to rid the planet of thousands of surplus nuclear weapons. The ability of his successors to act with similar foresight, however, seems less certain as Indiana's vote reverberates around the world.
Rob Rakove is a postdoctoral fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.