Lugar's Defeat Good for Politics, Bad for Incumbents

At the end of the 1980 campaign, Republican Jacob Javits of New York, a four-term Senator, came to my law school to deliver a foreign-policy speech to the students and faculty.

Javits was a moving force in New York politics and a powerful player in the Senate, but he was suffering the onset of Lou Gehrig's Disease. So in his campaign for a fifth term, he was challenged -- and defeated -- in the GOP primary by Town of Hempstead Supervisor Alfonse D'Amato.

Javits should have bowed out gracefully after the primary, but instead chose to fight on as a third-party candidate.

When he appeared in the lecture hall, he had to be helped to the podium. When he began to speak, you could see the ailment had impaired the great man's ability to speak and think. It was a sad and painful spectacle to watch.

Javits, the last great liberal Republican, captured only 11 percent of the vote in that election and his defeat marked the end of an era in which the Republican Party could win statewide in liberal New York.

I'm reminded of Javits by Indiana's six-term Sen. Dick Lugar, who just lost his primary challenge to Richard Mourdock, an event Tea Party activists say show the movement remains alive and well.

The truth is that Lugar, 80, should have announced his retirement this year, but made the same mistake as Javits in not bowing out in a dignified manner.

Politics is like gambling: you have to know when to walk away from the table, particularly if you want to go out a winner.

This is particularly true these days, when career politicians are perceived so poorly by frustrated voters. Some are starting their re-election bids as underdogs, so overwhelming is the anti-incumbent attitude in our national politics.

Lugar lost not because of a great outpouring of support for Mourdock and his intransigent Tea Party beliefs, but because he had lost touch with the Republican base in his state. Neither did it help that he had become old, arrogant and ran a poor campaign.

Too often, moderate incumbents like Lugar lose perspective of why they were elected, how to do their jobs and the plight of their constituents.

Others, like Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, know when it's time to quit and retire.

Some, like Arizona's Sen. John McCain, recast themselves as super conservative to win re-election.

And those like Javits and Lugar, who feel entitled to die in their seats, suffer humiliating defeats.

Lugar's loss shows the electorate is looking for solutions to the country's ills. Come November, voters will be ousting more incumbents -- no matter their party -- who have contributed to the stalemate in Washington and don't know when it's time to quit.

The lesson of Lugar's defeat shouldn't be lost on only Republicans.

Incumbents who have lost touch will be term-limited by the electorate, the way the system is supposed to work.

Published on May 11, 2012 in Florida Voices.

Steven Kurlander blogs at Kurly's Kommentary, writes a weekly column for Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel and Florida Voices and is a South Florida communications strategist.